Fostering Positive Professional Relationships

Written by Dr Kathy Barrett, University Lead for Research Staff Development, CRSD

Some of us just seem to know how to build good relationships with others.  Were these people born with this skill or did they learn it?  Of course, it helps to have a genuine interest in other people but where do you start?  In my previous role, I was introduced by one of my colleagues to an idea he had devised about where you start and how you build.  He called this the 5 As.

A number 1, the first step, is Answers. It is easy to ask someone if they will answer your questions.  All you need is questions and the understanding that the person you are talking to will be able to respond so you are not making them uncomfortable.  The questions can give you a sense of purpose when you approach your potential new friend/collaborator/advocate that can dispel any reserve you might have about approaching them.  As you start this conversation, you may find that you’re struggling to connect with them.  If that is the case then unless you really need to build a relationship with them, for example, they are your boss (!), don’t be afraid to move on.  It is likely that you will have some useful answers and there are others in the world who will respond more positively.  If you are getting on well with this person then you’re ready to push a bit harder.

A number 2 is Advice. Asking for advice puts a bit more pressure on the person you’re asking as they are taking more responsibility, but if you made a good start at building rapport with your first A then advice should follow relatively easily.  Again, if you feel by now you have gone as far as you can, cut your losses and move on, but if it is still going well you might be ready for the next stage.

The next A is Assistance. This is asking them to help you with something, for example, share a precious resource with you or read and critique your research paper.  To reach this level you will already have built some trust and respect.  After all, if the resource is precious they would need to feel that it is worth sharing it with you and that they will get something from reading about your research, even if it is the warm rosy glow you get from helping someone.  This level of relationship will have taken time to build and is likely to have come from quite a bit of interaction.

The fourth A is Advocacy. For someone to be your advocate, for example to recommend you to their head of department or fellow research group leader when you are looking for a job, you will need to have built up a fairly solid relationship so we’re talking about knowing that person for several months.  During that time you will have shown them that you are reliable and good at what you do as they will be risking their own reputation by advocating for you.

At the top of the pyramid at number 5 is Alliance. While you will probably have been giving as well as receiving at As 1-4, when you reach the 5th A you will be working together in such a way that both of you are giving equally to each other.  This comes for example when a PhD student has set up their own independent research and still has strong ties with their supervisor that are beyond a shared research programme.  This might manifest itself in recommending good PhD students or postdocs to each other, invitations to be a guest speaker, support in applying for grants or jobs and all manner of other endeavours.

I like this framework as it neatly describes how a relationship builds over time and what you can accomplish.  I use it mainly when talking about networking to demonstrate that just asking questions is a great way to start.  I think though that in any relationship, aiming for an alliance is a great goal to have as mutual respect and support is so empowering to have at any level.  In fact the higher you go in your career the fewer people there will be who will feel comfortable to talk to you because you are so much further advanced than them.  So next time you meet a more senior person in your department you don’t know, just ask a few questions to show your interest.  Who knows, over time you may work your way through the 5 As to Alliance.

My thanks to David Winter of The Careers Group for the 5 As.