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The Black Hole

Trust is the key to being more productive — and academics stink at it

If you want to build or change something, you need to find a band of people who share that vision.

BY DAVID KENT | AUG 03 2021

Maybe it’s the way we’ve been trained – assess, criticize, look for the gaps, and definitely do not just believe what it says on the tin. Whatever the reasons, the further I go in my career, the more I realize that I need to rely on other people to get jobs done. Alongside this, I have observed that people in senior positions have either built a network they trust, or they are run completely ragged trying to do it all themselves. In many ways, this is similar to how we run our scientific research programs – you can’t study every aspect of a problem, and collaborations in the spaces where we are not experts are absolutely essential to moving projects forward. In all cases, you need to trust the people you are working with to get things done in the right way, at the right time. It sometimes takes years to build up this trust, but it is completely invaluable.

There are far too many important jobs to do them all

Let’s face it – across a department, and even more so across a university, there are a huge range of things that make your life easier or harder depending on the processes and structures in place. This past year has been particularly enlightening, with everyone trying to agree on COVID-19 safety measures, and coming to understand how much we  depend on support staff (especially in the medical sciences). You are most certainly not “in it alone.” Irrespective of whether you end up trusting people to reach a common goal, there will be other players involved who will make decisions that affect your ability to complete your research.

Trust is not blind, but it can (and should) be earned

It is very easy to say that we should just all trust each other to do a good job. But we all have a colleague who we wouldn’t trust as far as we could throw them because of concerns ranging from competency to maliciousness. That said, if you find yourself in a large department and you only have faith in your own ability to make the right decision, then your world will become very lonely (and very busy). I completely acknowledge that when decisions will affect us, we are keen to be “in the room.” I also see the need to bring alternative viewpoints to the table when decisions are being taken that would have a widespread impact. However, I am also aware that certain people regularly beat me to the same question, and generally have a history of fighting the good fight and making sensible decisions. (And we should regularly acknowledge and thank these colleagues when they do things well!)  If I know they are attending a meeting, I know I don’t have to.  Sadly, we often put an excess of people in a room to make some pretty straightforward decisions. At least some of this is derived from people not willing to trust a committee or individual to make the right decision.

Picking your battles: getting people to do the jobs they are good at

There seems to be a tacit assumption in academic departments that everyone should have an equal share of administrative jobs. This seems to result in high profile jobs being given to people who get things done, and pushing the not-so-glamorous jobs onto those who have a perceived gap in their list of administrative duties.  In my experience, this means that some really critical (but maybe not so glamorous) tasks are not always being done so well. But they often underpin key processes, technologies, and day-to-day things that can make or break department life. It is critical to find people who are most suited to the role, rather than the ones who simply “need a job.”

We’re having a party! And it’s OK that not everyone joins

Every department has at least one. People who regularly answer  “no,” or “I have too much other stuff to do,” or “you’re not paying me enough to do that.” There is often an underlying truth behind these responses. Demands on an academic’s time are plentiful and sometimes unpleasant, so it is important not to judge people without all the facts. That said, it is equally important that you do not let such responses curb your enthusiasm to push things forward. If you have the energy and determination to drive something you are passionate about, find the people who will support you in achieving that goal and feed off their energy.

At the end of the day, if you want to build something or change something, you need to find a band of people who share that vision. You need to find a way to trust those colleagues to make the right decision and stick up for the principles that underpin that vision. If you can build this trust, even amongst four or five colleagues, you will soon find that you can let some concerns go and be comforted by the fact that someone in the room will espouse your style of thinking. Without such trust, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. The worry that someone else might not be delivering can quickly take over your life. Full trust in the ability of others is a high risk, high reward endeavour and we take on such experiments in research all the time. Why not try it for all aspects of academic life?

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Joe / August 11, 2021 at 15:10

    If only we had support staff. Thanks for austerity measures, many departments at Memorial University are floating on their own. Faculty are expected to cover all administrative duties (but we add a new vice-president position every 6 months)