Columns Opinion

Working with staff

Ron Vale

Ron Vale recommends getting to know your staff. Understand and learn about their lives, their concerns, their families. 

I am writing on this topic after reading Dr. Shashidhara’s blog on Understanding Bureaucracy. As he explains, there are two ways to look at bureaucracy- one is as frustrating epicycles that stand in your way of getting something done. Another view is as a system of checks and balances as well as a means of preventing too much authority from being centered in one individual’s hands. 

One can think of bureaucracy as a system of governance” (which it is), but one can also consider it from the perspective of the individuals (ie the administrative staff) doing their jobs. Sometimes, professors (and also graduate students/​post docs) treat administrative staff members poorly. Some individuals get frustrated and angry when a mistake is made or something is going slowly. On the other hand, they do not compliment the staff when a job is done well or on time. They see the staff as below them”, a lower caste in the university/​institute system. They do not appreciate or bother to learn about the complexity of their jobs. 

Don’t be one of those people. 

If you need a good reason, the most obvious is that being demanding and treating people poorly will get you nowhere. Staff are far more likely to perform well if they are appreciated, respected and in a good work environment. In a situation where the staff are poorly paid, permanent employees, being confrontational and demanding is only going to make them entrenched in a poor attitude and uncommitted to the success of the institution. Treating staff poorly is not going to make you feel happier either. You don’t need to belittle other people to make yourself feel more important. Reprimanding people is time consuming and exhausting. 

Instead, I recommend getting to know your staff. Understand and learn about their lives, their concerns, their families. Tell them about your projects and work, so they understand the value of what they are doing and how they are contributing. If you have an important grant, explain why you are excited about it and how it will benefit students in your lab and the institution as a whole. If you succeed in getting that grant, congratulate them as well and thank them for their hard work. Make your success, their success. Laugh with them. Talk about something that you might have in common, rather than just running in and out of the office. Have lunch with some of the staff once per year. Offer chocolates from a trip. This is not bribing the staff; this is treating them as respected colleagues in your enterprise and the institution as a whole. You are recognizing the role that they play. 

Most people respond well when they are respected and treated fairly. They will rise to a special challenge when occasional extra work is required and when you need their assistance to push things through the bureaucratic system.” Naturally some staff members may be difficult to work with and are truly poor performers. However, the better staff members tend to set the tone for the work place and can elevate others (at least partially) through their own example.