Managing Up

This is a relatively new concept to me, managing up. I hadn’t ever come across it in research before and hadn’t really experienced it myself – I mean of course I’ve had bosses, and there is always some relational work to do with getting to know their way of doing things, but nothing I would describe as ‘managing up’. Then in the last couple of years I have encountered it in research, through my current project on NHS managers and through my own experiences with my more senior colleagues on this project.

I’ve found it to be quite a tricky business, and it is fast becoming another of those odd tensions about contract research that I’ve written a little about recently.

Today provided a great example of this. I went into work specifically for a meeting with the principle investigator on my project. He is also my line manager and we have a nice easy comfortable working relationship. There are three other people on the project as well, and I get on very well with all of them. So far so good. Except today, having made the 60 min drive into work, I went to meet him and he hadn’t managed to do the preparation he needed to ahead of the meeting so he asked if we could postpone it by 24 hours.

This was really annoying. If he had told me, even by 8.30 this morning then I wouldn’t have had to go into the office, and could have stayed at home attending to the much more pressing needs of the conference paper I need to finish by next week. It also means I have to go back in tomorrow when we have re-arranged the meeting – so, again, a day when I would be writing at home is going to be half gone with trecking into work and back.

But, what can I do? He’s my boss, it’s not like I can have a flap or tell him to get in line. No, of course I couldn’t. I just smiled and said no problem and left the office, and now I’m back home blogging over lunch with the conference paper scheduled for this afternoon.

The thing is though that this particular experience draws out a few more general aches I have about this project, which I’m beginning to feel more and more nervous about. My boss is scheduled to give 20% of his time to this project. This was something he decided when writing the protocol around 2 years ago. Things change though. He was recently made divisional director within the school. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, but he was basically cajoled into it, it is a deeply unpopular administrative function which puts pressure on all other aspects of his work. In the last month or so I have had to wait days and weeks for email replies from him, have had to all but cut him out of the interviewing schedule, and on days like today, have had my own time wasted by his inability to put in the hours on the project. Today’s meeting required him to read and code a single transcript. Perhaps 2 hours work, which he has had an entire week to do.

We have applied for an unpaid extension to the project for a number of reasons, and this was one of the reasons he wrote to the funders about. Of the four reasons we put down only two were accepted as valid reasons, and this wasn’t one of them. This seems crazy to me. He couldn’t possibly have predicted the changes that have happened in department that would force this situation, and even if he could, is that really the sort of thing you can write into research bids? If you did then I think you would not be satisfying the requirements of your research quota, and it would be performance management time.

So, it looks like we should get a couple of months, unpaid, on the end of this project to finish things off. This is ok, but obviously it is much more difficult for me to work out because I’m on a contract rather than a salaried position. My colleagues will have to shuffle things around a bit to fit this extra work in for a couple of months next year, but they will still be getting paid. This is something that people with permanent secure positions in the university can forget from time to time. To be fair to my boss, he hasn’t forgotten things and is looking at possible ways round it. It’s not going to be a particularly fun time though, on top of the pay thing there is the actual work to be done – if I can’t get his attention now, for something he is contracted to do, then what chance will I have when we are past the planned end point of this project and he will no doubt have other demands to replace it?

It goes on. If we are late with the funders report – the main priority – then things like getting papers written will get pushed even further back – certainly beyond the extra couple of months or so that I might get paid for. As soon as I move on from this project, if I move to a different team, even within the same department, then keeping the regular contact that you need to produce properly collaborative articles will become that much more difficult – I’ll have a new project, a new full time commitment, possibly a new team, new department or new university. The further away I get, the more difficult it will be for me to have real input into those papers. That matters a lot to me, not simply because I need publications just like everyone else does, but because I have as much ownership of that data and that project as any of them. In fact I am the only one in the project who has been present at every single interview, and I am the only one on the team who will have to read and analyse every single transcript.

I expect to get at least one paper as first author, and would like to see each of my colleagues lead on one also – four or five publications out of a project this size is realistic. But the further away from it I get the harder it will be for me to be that person managing all my colleagues time, sending them reminders, sending them data and lit reviews, or at least navigating them round the data and reference managing software so they can do it themselves. I have never had the level of day to day project management and administration to do as I have on this project, but, without wanting to blow my own trumpet, I have done them, and done them well. We will have a fantastic set of data, beautifully organised, as well as a huge reference library already organised into headings for a lit review. We even have a research log with every single piece of detail about data collection there in front of you, so that when the health research journals want every last detail about access and ethics, it will all just be there. You could write a couple of books and a whole host of papers out of this data. You could link up with other similar projects and write a special journal issue or write an edited book. Yet I know that none of this stuff is likely to happen, because I am the only one who pushes things forward in this project, and I will only be there as long as I have a contract.

You can see why people get so frustrated at the amount of data there is out there that is never used, shared or done anything with. More and more primary research gets funded year on year, but there is so much to be done with existing data sets that keep slipping to the bottom of time-pressured to do lists and eventually get forgotten. You can also see how junior research colleagues find themselves in the nightmare scenarios of putting in all the donkey work on a project and then not even appearing on any publications. Sometimes this might be down to underhand senior colleagues. I bet that a lot of the time it is simply because there is never enough funding to cover writing, and so these things drag on and on, temporary staff move on, communications become less frequent, and names get left off.

So. Managing up. Prepare yourself for it. You will need to become pushy and cajoling with your senior colleagues, because they are not going to come to you and say, ‘right, I’m here for my 20% fte this week, what would you like me to do’. You will probably also need to prepare everything for them, such as nicely organised datasets, and you will likely become an honorary Nvivo/Endnote/SPSS/any other software consultant with the amount of hand holding you need to do for senior colleagues who are still in the days of pen and paper. Bless. Add this to the amount of admin that now gets piled onto research associates and fellows because there is less and less budget available for admin staff, and you will find yourself skilling in all sorts of new ways. At least this is what I try and tell myself.

A wasted morning is sometimes more than just a wasted morning. Sometimes it is a symptom of a great deal more.

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