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Developing Positive Relationships With Key Stakeholders

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Troy Buer, PhD
Director of Faculty Development and Special Projects
Assistant Professor of Medical Education
University of Virginia School of Medicine

Susan Pollart, MD
Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Faculty Development
Ruth E. Murdaugh Professor of Family Medicine
University of Virginia School of Medicine

Overview

Relationships are at the heart of faculty affairs and professional development work. Positive personal relationships are essential to the roles you play as a faculty affairs leader: advisor, advocate, educator, mentor, facilitator, recruiter, team builder, guide, confidant, policymaker, administrator, and scholar. Indeed, your success as a faculty affairs professional hinges on the quality of the relationships you build with deans, department chairs, faculty, and other stakeholders. Dynamic relationships are based on trust — the confidence one has in the character and competence of another.1 Leaders earn the confidence of stakeholders by acting with integrity and demonstrating the capabilities to deliver results over time. Character and competence ensure credibility.2-4 Credible faculty affairs professionals are best equipped to meet the unique and evolving needs of key constituencies while navigating the inevitable personnel, political, and organizational challenges that arise in academic medicine. The following principles and practical tips outline an evidence-based approach for you to develop positive relationships with the diverse groups of stakeholders you serve.

Lead With Integrity

Integrity of character is a key factor in effective leadership and trust-building.2,4 Character is the integration of values and actions over time. Personal and organizational values serve as your guiding principles of action as a faculty affairs professional; consequently, alignment between your core personal and organizational values is crucial. Personal behavior and conduct communicate more than words. Trust grows when stakeholders see consistency between your espoused values and daily actions. To check how internally directed and genuine your actions and motivations are, consider the question: “What would I do or say in this situation if I were living the values I expect of others?”5

Invest Time in Relationships

To build and sustain positive relationships, you must give focused attention and be responsive to the individual needs and interests of your stakeholders. While time must be allocated to phone calls and emails, in-person meetings create spaces to truly get to know faculty, department chairs, deans, and other stakeholders. Being face to face allows you to discuss ideas, hear concerns, and answer questions while noticing body language, tone of voice, and other nonverbal cues. Department chairs and faculty also benefit from direct access to your expertise in real time. The clarity, connection, and trust that comes from sitting across from someone and engaging in open dialogue is well worth the time investment.

Practice Empathic Communication

Honest, clear, accurate, and supportive communication is another essential part of building positive relationships and fostering trust. You must develop the ability to understand the interests and motivations of the individuals and groups you serve. Empathic communication connects you with your stakeholders; the primary motivation for communicating empathically is reaching understanding. Exploring the needs, interests, and concerns of others requires humility and inquisitiveness.6 Consequently, to be effective, spend more time asking questions and listening than talking. Thoughtful, open-ended questions help leaders avoid making assumptions and responding impulsively. When considering stakeholder needs, reflect on several questions: How well do you know their goals and objectives? What pressures are they facing? Are they clear about your objectives and expertise? Do they know how you can be a genuine source of help? Importantly, genuine curiosity leads to open conversations and information sharing (i.e., more accurate data). You are thereby better prepared to precisely diagnose and respond to the issue at hand. 

Write Effective Emails

Trust can also be built through effective digital communication. Indeed, it is imperative to communicate well via email because it is the default mode of daily business communication. The following practical tips and tricks from the Harvard Business Review can help you improve the quality of the emails you send and increase the likelihood those emails are read and understood.7-9

  1. Stick to standard capitalization, punctuation, and grammar. Emails that violate the accepted norms of writing can be seen as careless, confusing, and rushed.  
  2. Get straight to the point (politely, of course). Be direct, and don’t bury the lead. If you want your readers to digest and act on your message, make it easy for them to do so.
  3. Be brief — but not too brief. People find long emails annoying and tiresome, so content should rarely exceed a single screen of reading. Write tightly focused emails.  
  4. Revise, pause, and delete (as needed). No email should be sent without revision, and no email written in the heat of the moment should ever be sent. One guideline suggests the number of recipients dictates the number of email revisions: 1 to 5 recipients = 2 to 4 revisions; 5 to 10 recipients = 8 to 12 revisions; and a company-wide or executive committee email = 30 to 50 revisions.
  5. Use a short, descriptive, specific subject line. Emails with generic subject lines may get overlooked or lost in overflowing inboxes. If you need your recipient to take action, highlight that in the subject line.
  6. Copy people judiciously. Include only those on the email who will immediately know why they’re on the thread. Avoid using BCC, and be thoughtful when clicking “Reply All.”
  7. Know when to meet in person or pick up the phone. Skip or halt email discussion for topics that will generate (or are generating) multiple exchanges. Handle complex, high emotion, or sensitive topics by phone or in person.

Be Competent: Deliver Results

Ultimately, the best way to ensure a productive professional relationship is simply to produce excellent work. You must have a mastery of your job and maintain (or develop) the skills to do the work well. Stakeholders have to be convinced that you are capable, accountable, and informed, and will deliver results. You succeed when your skills and knowledge are current. Attending regional and national meetings and professional development workshops is good practice, as is reading the latest research in the field. Conducting scholarly activities is another way to demonstrate competence. Research provides important avenues to collaborate with colleagues, disseminate significant information about trends in faculty affairs, and promote best practices and effective programs.  

A subtler, but equally valuable component of competence is informed intuition. Intuition is the “process of blending existing information and data with one’s experiences, educated assumptions, and instincts to arrive at a logical conclusion.”10 Intuition is particularly helpful when you are facing decisions or situations with unclear decision rules, little data or objective criteria, and limited time.11 Intuition grows as you gain experience, make decisions in a variety of settings, and receive regular (and accurate) feedback about whether your decisions were good.11

While intimidating, asking for feedback can lead to more trusting relationships between you and your stakeholders. You can utilize a 360-degree instrument to gather confidential feedback from deans, department chairs, direct reports, and colleagues. As a multirater leadership development tool, 360s are useful for gathering performance feedback and discovering leadership strengths and growth opportunities. You can also solicit feedback directly from individual stakeholders. While in-person feedback is not anonymous, you can increase the chances of hearing the truth by following a few simple tactics.12 First, be clear that you want honest feedback; reassure stakeholders you view their candid observations and opinions as helpful. Second, focus on the future by asking what you can do better going forward. A forward-looking conversation invites more honest responses. Third, avoid defensiveness by listening without judgement. Remember that stakeholders’ feedback may not be completely accurate; however, it provides invaluable insight into how you are perceived.

Conclusion

The quality of the relationships between you and the deans, department chairs, and faculty you serve is paramount. Positive professional relationships happen neither spontaneously nor instantaneously — they require focused effort and attention. The most credible faculty affairs professionals act with integrity, invest time and energy in individual relationships, communicate effectively in person and electronically, and have a track record of delivering high-quality work. Simply put, deans, department chairs, and faculty trust faculty affairs professionals who demonstrate character and competence.

References

  1. Covey S. The Speed of Trust. New York, NY: Free Press; 2018.
  2. Buller J. Positive Academic Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2013.
  3. Gabbarro J, Kotter J. Managing your boss. Harvard Business Review. January 2005.
  4. Kouzes J, Posner B. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2017.
  5. Quinn R. Moments of greatness: entering the fundamental state of leadership. Harvard Business Review. July-August 2005.
  6. Schein E. Humble Inquiry. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Kohler; 2013.
  7. Harmon S. How to make sure your emails give the right impression. Harvard Business Review. Feb. 6, 2017. https://hbr.org/2017/02/how-to-make-sure-your-emails-give-the-right-impression.
  8. Garner B. Write e-mails that people won’t ignore. Harvard Business Review. Feb. 21, 2013. https://hbr.org/2013/02/write-e-mails-that-people-wont.
  9. Gavett G. The essential guide to crafting a work email. Harvard Business Review. July 24, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/07/the-essential-guide-to-crafting-a-work-email.
  10. Dye D. Leadership intuition meets the future of work. In: JL Liebowitz, et Al. How Well Do Executives Trust Their Intuition. New York, NY: Auerbach; 2018;107-122.
  11. Locke C. When it’s safe to rely on intuition (and when it’s not). Harvard Business Review. April 30, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/04/when-its-safe-to-rely-on-intuition-and-when-its-not.
  12. Bregman P. How to ask for feedback that will actually help you. Harvard Business Review. Dec. 5, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/12/how-to-ask-for-feedback-that-will-actually-help-you.

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