Human female face covered in coloured paints

Consider the human

“Being part of a team is considering the human”.  Professor Melissa Terras, University of Edinburgh

Today’s post is from one of our Summer School community.  Gemma O’Sullivan is an Doctoral Candidate at the School of Education at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland.  Her research focus is transdisciplinary education, policy and the transformation of higher education.

Most people who have undertaken a doctorate will appreciate that academia is not necessarily a team sport. Likewise, the university system, like many environments, can be deeply hierarchical. The two biggest factors that mitigate against authentic collaboration? Individualism and hierarchy. This week, over 50 early-career researchers from Europe’s leading research-intensive universities gathered at the LERU doctoral summer school to produce a guide to global collaboration. Our speakers numbered hugely successful researchers whose various projects have been funded to the tune of multiple millions and whose outputs have created social change in crucial ways however larger or small. Amid the project plans and logistics, funding mechanisms and co-authoring conflicts, they each seemed to arrive at the same point: at the core of their successes and failures were interpersonal relationships. The “human in the team”.

The European funding system necessitates that disciplinary experts seek out and work collaboratively across disciplines, borders and sectors. We cannot take for granted that working collaboratively comes naturally to everyone and we cannot presume it will just happen when we want it to.

Speakers identified two key success factors: a flat organisational structure and a negotiated (and monitored) plan for open, active communication. A flat organisational structure treats everyone on the team equally, regardless of where you sit in the researcher food chain. Early career researchers are integrated, and seasoned PIs lend advice and expertise in an open, democratic manner. A flat organisational structure means having a clearly identified leader who is in their position not solely due to domain experience but because they are good at leading. However, even with the best leader in the world, a neutral party is needed — someone who can take responsibility for mediating conflict, managing the integration of divergent viewpoints and navigating subtle divergences in culture, person and discipline.

Open communication means prioritising the team’s communication plan. Within the partnership agreement, one researcher said they had inserted a “code of behaviour”. This might include a conflict management plan, space for frequent face-to-face meetings, a transparent communication system that gives equal access to all information and data, and a budget for external advice when needed.

Open communication is a skill that can be learned. It means active listening and ensuring you integrate other viewpoints into yours. As a former journalist, I learned that people engage when you really listen. When you are authentic, it has a domino effect: trust emerges, barriers come down, people relax. It seems obvious but to genuinely you connect, you need to, well, genuinely connect. Too often, team members (we are all guilty) nod vigorously, appearing to listen when they are actually just waiting for their turn to speak.

Active listening and open communication are paramount in collaboration. These cannot be token gestures. They need to be prioritised in planning and training in the same way that hard skills are. Get expert advice, make a plan, negotiate how your team plans to communicate and consider creating an integration framework. You may think you are listening but have you really integrated another perspective, can you identify it, name it, track it?

At this juncture in interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international collaborations, communication cannot be left to chance. Researchers spoke passionately about how the personal – the dinner in the evenings, the face-to-face meeting, the shared flight, the chat on the commute home, that natural connection – had made the crucial difference between a collaborative project’s success and failure; or the infrequently cited measure of impact – your, and your colleagues’, sense of worth. How do you know if the project was a success, one researcher posited? You like each other at the end. Having deliberately frank, open discussions at the outset, and throughout, as well as treating those ‘soft skills’ are seriously as you do ‘hard skills’, will go a long way to making sure you do.

(Image by Ivano Good at Pixabay

(Image by Free-Photos at Pixabay,

(Image by Ivano Good at Pixabay

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