Career Talk

Managing People

October 2003

Becoming a supervisor is one of the key career transitions that a postdoc or junior faculty person must make. At some point in your career you will be responsible for managing someone-be it in a laboratory or an office group or a respiratory therapy section. It is ironic that these responsibilities often fall upon junior people, those with the least experience in managing people. Most physicians receive little or no training in the day-to-day realities of maintaining a smoothly running and productive operation.

  1. Define expectations
    Whether you are meeting with a new employee, or are assuming directorship of an existing group, it is imperative that you define what your goals and expectations are. Do not assume that just because your employees are "motivated and competent" that they will know what you want or where you see the organization going. You must set the philosophical and practical framework for how you want your group to run. By establishing the rules up front (accountability, communication, etc…) you will save you and your employees a great deal of uncertainty and misunderstanding down the line .

    This includes having regular, scheduled meetings with clearly defined agendas so that you and your employees can keep in touch with each other. It is also important to walk around (the lab, the wards) so that you can see and hear how your employees are interacting with each other and ancillary staff.
  2. Treat people with respect
    Having defined your goals, empower people to use whatever means are within the boundaries of their position to achieve the defined outcome or to solve problems. Do not micromanage. While a new technician or inexperienced undergraduate might need more attention early on, let people use their brains and creativity to help you get the work done. First of all, you waste valuable time needed to keep focused on the big picture. Furthermore, if you expect and value high performance, you will usually be rewarded with enthusiastic, proactive employees.

    Make sure your actions support your ideals. It is easy to pay lip service to customer service or employee satisfaction, but if all people ever see you do is pore over budget reports, then it is clear that what you really care about is money. Remember to praise publicly (and criticize privately). Keep your commitments. Happy, valued employees will repay you with loyalty and productivity.
  3. Know what you can change and what you cannot
    Don't waste time and energy obsessing over problems that can't be fixed. That only leads to frustration and demoralization. Instead, focus on solutions that help you work around the issue and still get you to your goal.
  4. Focus on results
    This is especially true in a laboratory setting where people may work odd hours, who don't think like you do or share your values. As long as they are productive and their conduct is not detrimental to the overall functioning of the group, focus on maintaining a good working relationship. You may need to adjust your performance measures based on the difficulty of the project or task to which the employee has been assigned. If someone is floundering, don't necessarily blame them. Try and troubleshoot the problem together.
  5. Give regular, timely feedback
    As a manager, it is critical that people hear from you regarding their performance. The majority of drivers think that they are good drivers but many of us who share the road might disagree with this assessment!
  6. Keep the lines of communication open
    Listen, really listen to what people have to say. Don't be afraid to ask hard questions and don't avoid difficult answers. If people feel that they will be treated fairly, they will be honest about their work. Better to know and troubleshoot problems when they start (or before they give you inaccurate data!) before they escalate into full-blown crises.
  7. Don't avoid conflict
    Unless you are very lucky, dealing with interpersonal conflict is unavoidable as a manager. One of the most difficult and unpleasant tasks a manager must deal with is intervening in personality conflicts. As MDs, many of us may feel that we have "more important things to deal with." However, dysfunctional relationships among employees can lead to low morale, decreasing productivity and poor performance. Setting the ground rules early on (e.g., regarding sexual and cultural harassment) can prevent many conflicts from ever arising. Hopefully, if people have been open and there has been regular feedback, then what conflicts do come up can be dealt with before too many feelings have been hurt.