Hundreds of articles have recently been published explaining that Research Administration is relatively new profession. Compared with other industries, Research Administration only recently has earned official graduate degree programs, professional societies, and certifications. Until the formation of these degree and certification programs, the field of RA depended solely on the internal-education between colleagues, a healthy practice of knowledge management, and an adept talent for learn-as-you-go professionals. As the field progresses from this internal-education to external-education teaching, I fear that we as professionals will lose the talent of teaching and coaching.
Today, I want to take a moment to reflect on your personal teaching style as an RA manager. A teaching style is simply the way that you approach your colleagues from beginning to end when you are communicating new knowledge, a new technology, or a new skill. There are several formally recognized teaching styles to choose from, but the important thing is to choose a style that best suits your personality and management style.
Take a moment to remember a moment when you have taught a colleague or team member something new. Perhaps you showed a new hire how to gather essential and accurate information about the current state of a grant financials and effort history. Or, you brought a team member along to a meeting that would coordinate a large new interdisciplinary grant, and you had to explain the various pieces of the grant application. Or, perhaps a moment when you had to explain a piece of legislation, federal regulation, or a change in the Common Rule to a PI in a respectful manner. These are all examples of teaching moments—how did you handle them?
The Line Between Supervision and Autonomy
As managers, there is often a transition between actively supervising your team and trusting your team with semi- or full-autonomy. Teachable moments occur within all aspects of this spectrum, but you may approach the issue differently. The supervisory relationship is more evaluative in nature. Supervisory teaching enhances the professional functioning of the team member while monitoring the overall quality of the professional services offered by your office as a whole. In this situation, you are often the ‘gatekeeper’ to ensure that everything going out of your office is accurate and up to your standards. There are several types of supervisory styles that have been identified over the years. I will not go into them here, but you may want to consider what supervisory styles is most similar to your own – and what style do you aspire to have?
During the supervision period, consider using both formal and informal learner self-assessments to track progress and retention. Be clear on expectations and delineation of expectations for general rules and standards. Collaborate with your learner and engage with them regularly to create a strong alliance and trust. As a manager, you can encourage the learner to engage in self-awareness and reflective practices when things go right or wrong. Finally, a successful teachable moment between a supervisor and learner hinges on ongoing communication and mutual respect.
Micromanager vs. Absentee
Autonomy is often a grey line, reminiscent of a traditional apprenticeship model with graded responsibility and formal ‘graduations’ of power and autonomy. In today’s professional environment, the lines are often less clear. Often, when you are out of the office is when your learners practice more independently. Constant supervision reduces the opportunities for autonomous decision-making. As a supervisor, you should consider the perception and the expectation of autonomy in your office. For most of us, the level of autonomy depends on the complexity and prestige of the project at hand. A new hire will likely get frustrated if you leave them alone with the Chair of the Department’s new R01 application. However, a seasoned employee might express frustration if you provide too much direction. As managers, we are more likely to grant independence to team members who have displayed motivation and competence. However, it is important to practice self-reflection and consider the balance between a micromanager (creating learner apathy) and an absentee manager (creating a sense of abandonment).
It is perhaps important to note the difference between autonomy and independence, for they are not the same thing. RA is an interdisciplinary, interoffice, mega-collaborative sport. Never are we alone on an island acting independently. Accordingly, we want to prepare our learners for situations where they interact with others, and not act independently. If you emphasis independence, you threaten that learner’s ability to ask for assistance when a question arises. As a manager, you can support autonomy by working from the learner’s perspective to promote their active engagement and sense of judgment with respect to learning. If you are more supportive of autonomy by showing sensitivity to their perspectives, acknowledgment of their feelings, provision of choices, minimization of controls, your team will be motivated to pursue their own goals, more satisfied with their work, and become higher achievers.
There are several strategies represented in early literature for promoting autonomy. Most include (1) identifying what the learner needs and nurturing optimal challenges to meet those needs, (2) encourage active participation and responsibility for learning, and (3) giving positive, relevant and constructive feedback in the moment. While these three strategies sound simple on paper, it can be difficult to actively practice them daily. Constructing a well-written performance evaluation or in-the-moment feedback can be difficult and often requires practice. Remember to focus on your learner, use action verbs that describe observable and measurable behaviors (not just “get better”), and be realistic about what the learner will be able to accomplish within the timeframe you have set. If you can do that, you will be well on your way to becoming a strong teacher, in addition to a better manger.