Why is ‘relationship management’ so important in research environments?
27 September 2023
This is the first in a series of blogs on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) - our ability to identify, understand and manage our own emotions and to manage our responses to the emotions of others.
By Kamal R. Mahtani and Sean Heneghan
Building and maintaining effective professional relationships is particularly important in research. A 2018 realist review on interventions to support successful research environments highlighted ‘relationships’ as a critical component. Such relationships helped in forming high-quality research collaborations and networks. Healthy relationships, defined by mutual trust and respect, were also found to enhance the development of Early Career Researchers (ECRs), improving their self-confidence, self-esteem, and research capabilities. Supportive research leaders who paid attention to the relationships in their group also played a vital role in fostering thriving research environments, promoting researcher identity, and serving as positive role models. At an organisational level, positive workplace relationships fostered a sense of community and environment for academic and personal development.
Look around many academic environments, and you will see countless examples of this evidence base being put into good practice. However, this view may not necessarily be universal, as, despite these positive examples, academic environments and cultures are not always the ideal incubators to foster healthy professional relationships. Competition for funding, short-term contracts, few permanent posts for academics to aspire to, and a ‘publish or perish’ culture are still deeply embedded in academic culture, all as potential barriers to good relations. Recent years have also seen the rise of “academic narcissism”, leading some academics to prioritise their external social and mainstream media profile development to gain attention and authority, possibly at the cost of fostering internal relations. As a result of these challenges, academic environments can, in some cases, promote an increased lack of trust between colleagues, reduced communication and engagement, and a culture of silo-working. This way of working can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and isolation of individuals or excessive internal competition.
Developing relationship management skills may be one way to mitigate these challenges. Relationship management is an essential component of emotional intelligence (EQ), which comprises three other interdependent domains - self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness. Developing skills in emotional intelligence is as necessary as (if not more important than) enhancing our IQ. Relationship management involves using skills to build and maintain positive relationships with others.
So what does relationship management look like in practice? Mastering skills in relationship management takes time, practice, self-reflection, and review. However, as a starting point, here are five steps to consider:
Improve your communication abilities: Strong communication is fundamental to relationship management. This entails being attentive and genuine in conversation, engaging in active listening, and conveying your perspective and viewpoint instead of imposing it. Reflect on how you remember and respect what people share with you and follow important conversations with relevant actions.
Adopt a trust-building mindset. Trust is a valuable asset, which can generate more trust when used well. Establishing trust necessitates time, dedication, and purpose. It also involves respecting and managing the trust of others, being dependable and predictable, and maintaining consistency. Showing reciprocity - "the equitable and generous exchange of value" - can evolve and strengthen that trust. Reflect on how you build trust with someone you have never worked with before. How much do you prioritise the effort?
Show appreciation and humility. In academic environments, success often relies on the support of others, such as mentors or colleagues. It is easy to overlook thanking them for their efforts, but doing so can be a powerful tool in effective relationship management. Recognising the actions, words, and emotions of others is crucial in emotional intelligence and may require inquiry, empathy, or sometimes apology. How often do you thank a team member or colleague for their efforts? It is easy to forget to do, but it can be such a powerful lever in practising effective relationship management.
Look for "win/win" ground. Look for "win/win" solutions: As Stephen Covey emphasised, "Win-win is a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions." Finding solutions from which both parties benefit can be challenging in academic environments, but it is not impossible and is a vital relationship management skill to learn to avoid downstream conflict.
Develop conflict management skills. Despite your best efforts, conflicts may arise. It is essential to have skills in effective conflict management at such times. This may require additional training and help you concentrate on repairing and resolving issues rather than blaming or seeking retribution.
Effective professional relationships are crucial in research, and there are countless examples of how these have worked well. However, certain academic cultures can hinder forming good professional relationships in these environments. Developing skills in relationship management may be one way of mitigating this.
Kamal R. Mahtani is a GP and Professor of Evidence-Based Healthcare at the University of Oxford. He is the Director of the MSc in Global Healthcare Leadership and Oxford Primary Care Research Leadership programmes.
Sean Heneghan is a Chartered Organisational Psychologist and Senior Tutor at the University of Oxford.
Acknowledgements: The authors thank Jeffrey Aronson for commenting on an earlier draft.
Disclaimer: The views presented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the host institution.