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‘Put ego aside when dealing with PIs,’ research managers told


SRAI 2022: Communications expert suggests ways to build better relationships with faculty members

Research managers should “remove their ego” and “take a step back” when communicating with unruly faculty members, the Society of Research Administrators International annual meeting has heard.

Vanessa Rook, a research administrator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, who has a background in communication, said at the SRAI meeting in Las Vegas on 3 November that in her experience, research managers often complained about “unruly PIs…who cause a lot of issues for you and a lot of stress”, but treated these problems “almost like a badge of honour”.

“I started to think it shouldn’t be like that,” she said. “I want us to actually build really good relationships with our PIs. So I started brainstorming about how we can change that.

“We’re not just communicating policies, we’re not just communicating procedures or the things we need faculty to do. We’re building relationships with them and we’re building trust.”

Setting ego aside

Citing the bestselling author Daniel Pink, Rook advised research administrators to “decrease your power to increase your effectiveness” when dealing with faculty members who are angry or upset.

“The concept is that, if you want to connect with them as an equal, you [should] remove your own ego first, because when you remove your own ego you can see what their ego is, and a lot of times it’s coming from a place where they are frustrated for reasons that are out of your control.”

For instance, “sometimes the faculty member is really struggling because they haven’t had a grant proposal awarded in a really long time and they feel this one proposal is going to be the most important one”.

“They are pushing you, they are yelling, they are getting upset and sending you 15 emails every five minutes, or they are sending you absolutely no communication.”

Rook said that while a research administrator’s first response might be: ‘Oh, it’s just because their ego is inflated’, it may actually be because the researcher is “unbelievably worried that this proposal is the last proposal they are going to be able to submit before their department looks differently on their position”.

She advised: “Take a step back and say: ‘Hey, is it actually about this? Are you nervous about this? Are you stressed because maybe this is the first time you are applying to this sponsor? Are you worried because you have this award and it’s very big, it’s a lot of money. Let’s re-look at your financials, let’s take a step back.’”

That way, Rook explained, “you end up providing them with the help, resources and information that they actually need and end up boosting your own confidence in the process. Because now you are taking control of the situation and are handling it.”

When an administrator puts ego aside, she said, “we can then look at [the researcher’s] ego and try to figure out where that is coming from and end up having a better connection with them”.

Auditing communication style

Rook also encouraged administrators to “audit” their style of communicating with other staff.

Often, she said, when communicating with faculty and staff, “we make assumptions about their first language. We make assumptions about what they know. So one of the things that helps is minimising idioms in language.”

For example, while most staff may be familiar with the American football term “a hail Mary pass”, a non-sports fan or someone unfamiliar with the religious connotations may not.

“You should never assume that somebody knows,” Rook cautioned.

In addition, she advised administrators to “get personal” when communicating with other staff to build relationships.

“You connect with people when you share a little more about yourself,” she said. “Sometimes, in a professional setting, you might want to keep things more professional. But you might find that you have better relationships with [other staff] and can communicate better with them when you have something you can talk about that’s not work.”

Meanwhile, when meeting with faculty members, she suggested finding ways to “set the tone”.

For example, she said, “I might find out that last week they were out of the office because they were at a conference. So then I have a meeting with them and I don’t just say: ‘Ok, let’s talk about your financial report.’ I’ll say: ‘I saw you were at a conference last week, did you have a good time?’”

This “starts the conversation already at a lower level”, she added. “We’re not starting with tension. We’re not starting with a topic that is maybe a little bit stressful, we’re starting with something that is relatable and easy.”