Building Relationships at Home

How can you network most effectively within your own institution? Stephen J. Aguilar provides advice.

September 25, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/akindo

Earlier this year, I discussed how to network. Typically, networking occurs during conferences or other formal gatherings. The goal of networking, broadly speaking, is to build relationships with colleagues outside your home institution. This month, I focus on building relationships within your institution -- the aims of which are different, as are the approaches for how to do it effectively.

Why Bother?

To put it bluntly, you will eventually need your colleagues at your home institution to vouch for you. If you are a tenure-track junior scholar, you will need them to support your tenure case when it comes up. Often, senior colleagues will also be able to introduce you to individuals within their networks, which may help when it comes to obtaining outside letter writers for your tenure case -- it’s always best to have a positive reputation that precedes you, rather than be a stranger on a vita.

If you are a student or a postdoc, you will need support from your principal investigator and other faculty members as you enter the job market. Even if you are tenured, you need support to be promoted to full professor or be positioned to win awards.

What I’ve just said, however, is simply the pragmatic answer. You should keep it in mind, but you should also avoid myopically focusing on the potential utility of those around you. Doing so would be both obvious and an obnoxious thing to do -- few people are OK with being seen only as pawns to be moved about for the benefit of someone else.

An equally important reason is that, regardless of your field, your work and quality of life will be improved if you are a member of a community -- even if you are in a field that lends itself to shutting your door atop an ivory tower. Communities with positive norms can lead to a powerful sense of belonging that is achieved through friendly exchanges with others in your scholarly community, be it through informal hallway talk, scheduled coffees or lunches, or dinners at someone’s home.

Scholarly communities can also help your work become stronger. They often create informal working groups that meet to exchange new methods, hold lab meetings that share early versions of work or schedule large gatherings that help members of the community understand their overarching mission.

Assuming I’ve convinced you that building relationships within your institution is important, where do you begin?

Observe and understand the local relationship-building culture. When you arrive at a new institution, it is important to observe those around you to uncover the ebb and flow of relationship-building activities. For example, are you in a small college town where it is difficult to differentiate between being off the campus and on it? Such an environment might lend itself to impromptu campus meetings or chance meetings outside the university. Gatherings might often be held at someone’s home, a local restaurant or a coffee shop that is within walking distance. In that sort of environment, relationships with colleagues might form in a manner that seems effortless, since the entire city is, in some ways, simply an extension of the university.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may find yourself working for a university that has a history of being a commuter institution or is embedded in a large urban city where living close to the campus is not viable. Gatherings may thus be semiformal affairs held on a set schedule at a venue on or near the campus. Attending such events may not be strictly required, but you may still have an implied obligation to attend because such community gatherings are rare.

That is why you should observe before you act. In some situations, impromptu meetings are welcomed. Other times, an impromptu meeting is a disrespectful imposition that throws off a tight schedule. In such cases, it may be necessary to schedule a meeting because the person with whom you are meeting does not come to the campus often. Every institution will have its general meeting norms, but those norms will also vary by whom you interact with, so you should also attend to individual differences.

Once you have done the necessary legwork to understand the relationship-building patterns of your home institution, working within the implicit (and explicit) norms becomes easier. The results is a decreased likelihood of your inadvertently ruffling someone’s feathers or taking unexpected responses personally. It also positions you to start building relationships in an effective manner.

Be patient and professional. Relationships take time to develop, and it’s important to be patient when you are forming them. Avoid having an immediate and/or selfish goal for meeting with someone, especially if it is your first informal meeting with them. Meetings should have a purpose that benefits both parties. Remember: the key goal is to build and grow the relationship. Accomplishing that goal is easier if both parties benefit from the interaction.

For example, if I only speak to a senior colleague about the tenure process every time we meet, such meetings will quickly become tedious and probably cease. But if we discuss new projects, old projects, the direction of the university, family life and the like, then our meetings will at least be different enough to warrant future ones. And within the flow of the conversation, I can ask about tenure in a way that doesn’t feel like I am simply extracting information.

Sometimes a meeting over coffee has to be scheduled a few months (yes, months) in advance. That is fine. Everyone is busy (be it actually busy or simply inefficient with their time), so acknowledging it and not judging how someone manages their schedule is important.

Since everyone is busy, it is important to reply quickly to any requests you initiate. If you send me an email on Monday asking me to meet next week, then I will likely reply to you within a couple of hours and expect you to do the same. If, however, you delay your reply until Friday, then you are being ineffective and inefficient at building a relationship with me.

From my perspective, you are also wasting my time; once you reply, my schedule has likely shifted, so now I have to take another look. If you wait a few days again, we might go back and forth for weeks. Do not be this person. I tend to be somewhat accommodating in such instances, but the more senior the colleague, the less accommodating they may be.

In addition, make sure to follow through if you run into someone in person and say, “Let’s catch up soon -- I’ll send you an email to set something up.” For the life of me, I’ll never understand why one would offer to meet without following through. If “let’s catch up” is your filler phrase to end a conversation, I suggest you pick a different one.

Attend to power structures, but do not use them as filters. Every department has a both an informal and a formal power structure. Certain faculty, administrators and others will be more influential than their peers. You should learn who those individuals are and build a relationship with them, even if it only rises to the level of “not a stranger.” Yet, you should not filter out or snub those whom you perceive as “unimportant.” Doing so is shortsighted. Titles change, as does influence. The person you snub today may be the person you need to interact with professionally tomorrow.

In fact, you should try to build relationships with everyone, not just faculty members. Every institution has staff members who are vital to making things run efficiently. Often, they can be fixtures of a program or department, serving for years while faculty members come and go. Thus, they hold a lot of institutional knowledge, which enables them to see patterns that even senior faculty might miss.

It’s OK not to be friends with everyone. In academe, we often tend to conflate professional relationships, even professional friendships, with personal relationships and friendships. For example, just because you eat dinner at the home of a colleague, it does not necessarily mean that they are your personal friend. Understand the difference, because it will help you avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

That’s not to say that friendships aren’t possible, however. Instead, friendships must be understood in context. If the context is professional, then you avoid crossing certain professional boundaries. Know where and what those are.

Always be friendly, but know that every relationship is different and you may not be friends with everyone. Maintain your professionalism, even during instances where you feel antagonism. This is especially important for junior faculty who must work toward tenure and contingent faculty who have fewer protections.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter at @stephenaguilar.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Back to Top