Dr Hannah Roberts, career and leadership coach, Hannah Roberts Coaching.
How can you support your postdocs to increase their productivity, work on their careers and maintain healthy balance between the two?
It is challenging for postdocs to maintain momentum while managing multiple competing projects, demanding deadlines and simultaneously taking steps forwards in their own professional development.
This workshop covered:
How to support your postdocs to master the ability to prioritise and focus their workload using a five-pillar system and high-performance habits.
How to facilitate non-confrontational conversations around saying no, reclaiming space where a boundary has slipped and eight steps to effective delegation.
How to flex your leadership style to bring the best performance out of your postdoc by introducing regular structured feedback sessions where postdocs do not take feedback personally and instead welcome feedback for their rapid growth and learning.
This part of the session laid out the intended outcomes and learning objectives and explored the challenges around energy and effectiveness.
So today we’re here to talk about productivity and professional development and how to support postdocs; this also works for PhD students, Masters’ students, anyone within which you are managing, to increase their productivity, work on their careers, not just in them producing all the time, and maintain a healthy balance.
I know for, not just the postdocs, but many of you as well, that finding that balance can be a really tricky thing. So just let me know in the chat box with a yes or no, do you currently manage people, whether that’s postdocs, PhD students, Masters’ students? Just to get a sense for it, because there may be some people here who don’t have staff members yet. Okay, perfect. So the vast majority I’m seeing there are yeses. There’s one or two no’s as well. So this can be obviously information for the future as well, and that’s hitting the ground running if you know all this stuff before you get started.
So at the end of today’s session, I want to make sure that you’ve left with three things in particular. We’re going to look at how we can help guide postdocs to prioritise their workload using high-performance habits. Then we’re going to move onto boundaries, because these work/life boundaries are pretty shaky. So how to facilitate non-confrontational conversation templates on saying no, boundary setting, and delegation. So how you can do that for yourselves and how you can facilitate postdocs to do that as well? We’re then going to look at how you might need to flex your leadership style when giving feedback to be able to support growth, rather than people taking feedback as a personal attack and a criticism. So how can we turn that round into something more positive?
So I hope you’re all onboard for the session today. Just to let you know who I am, why is it me that’s here to talk to you about this? So, hi, I’m Hannah. I am a chemist by background, so I have a degree, master’s, PhD, and postdoc in chemistry. I then spent eight years managing large multi-million-pound projects between academia and industry, and commercialising that research. As part of one of those commercialisation projects, I started a spin-out company with three other female academics, and I was managing director of that company for two years.
I did that phase of my life while also having three children. It was on my third maternity leave where I decided, had an epiphany, and decided to retrain to be a coach and a professional skills trainer. I’ve been doing that in my own business since 2019. I don’t have a picture of me in a chemistry lab coat, but I do have a chemistry cake when I was going on my third mat leave. These are my children, Oscar, Jensen and Elsie, who are ten, eight and four. I do lots of speaking opportunities as well. I do work with lots of large organisations, as well as networks, and obviously the Prosper Network as well. I’ve worked with many, many universities. You will find my stuff featured in ‘Forbes,’ ‘Chemistry World,’ and other places, and I have won some awards this year. I don’t say any of that to show off, because I find it cringey myself. It’s more so that everything that I say after this point, you’ll actually believe me.
So I want to kick off with a question and that is directed at you personally. So what is your greatest challenge around energy and effectiveness? What’s going on for you when you think about time, energy, all the things that you have to do? So if we have a look, when I ask postdocs this question, what does your ineffectiveness look like? I give them this series of choices between one to six. What do you think is their biggest response here? What do you think is their number one response? So you’re going to put a number one, two, three, four, five or six in the chat box. What do you think they say the most out of all of those?
Number one is that they’re so busy they’re not getting the important things done. Number two is that they have a PhD in procrastination. Number three is that they feel reactive, like they’re firefighting all the time. Number four is that they have time, but they don’t have the energy to do anything. Number five is the decision fatigue, that kind of brain ache at the front of your head, feeling like ‘I can’t even make another decision today, I’m spread too thinly.’ Number six is that they feel like they need a holiday. When I do this routinely, people will mostly say number three, that they feel like they’re having to be reactive all the time and that they’re firefighting.
That means that that feeds into number one, that they’re so busy that they can’t get their important tasks done. What often happens for postdocs is they get stuck in this mindset of ‘I’ve got to get my head down, I’ve got to produce as much as possible,’ but it’s all coming in from different directions. They get completely overwhelmed. They forget to work on their careers at the same time. They feel guilty about spending any time working on their careers, looking at jobs, engaging in Prosper, spending time on LinkedIn, even 15 minutes of connecting with other people, they feel guilty about doing that in work time, in particular.
Everything that’s given to them by their supervisors feels important, and they don’t know what’s the most important, and then it all becomes a little bit too much. Does that sound familiar to anybody here? So I want to take a moment to tell you a little bit about my story with time and energy, as a postdoc.
I want you to hear this in two different lenses. I’m going to be asking you to reflect on this afterwards. One, in the lens of what’s in this story for me? How does this story relate to me personally? And, number two, how might this relate to your postdocs as well, and what they’re experiencing right now?
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Effectiveness is related to energy levels. You might have time but no energy, or you might be very active but have little time to get everything done.
Being ineffective is linked to different barriers. Some of these barriers are self-created, such as procrastination.
Ineffectiveness is perceived differently by each person. There is no right or wrong.
Taking maternity leave as a postdoc
This part of the session explored the experience of the speaker taking maternity leave while being a postdoc and how this influenced her decision-making around her career.
When I first started my degree in chemistry 43 per cent of the undergraduates were women, and I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a leaky pipeline until the last year of my PhD. We’d just got married and we were thinking about starting a family, and I did this mental flip, like two steps ahead, and I found that in a department of over 200 only 5 people were women, and of those 5 women only 2 had young children. That really left me feeling like, oh, is this even possible? You know, is academia even possible for me? I conjured up this image of being like a part-time professor, and it just didn’t look like it even existed. I was on that career conveyor belt.
I’d spent four years doing a PhD and I still hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do next, and my colleague recommended me for a postdoc position. Although I showed up for the interview, although it was my CV and credentials, I really felt like I only got that position because of my contact rather than anything that I was… You know, anything I’d achieved myself. When I took that position, it really left me feeling like I needed to prove myself, prove my capabilities.
Two weeks into that postdoc, a 12-month contract, I also fell pregnant with my first child, Oscar. Immediately I had this feeling of, you’re on a 12-month contract, you’ve got no security, you’ve got no job to come back to. You need to make sure here that you get this contract extended. It left me feeling like, ah, there’s about 100 people waiting in the wings ready to take my place. I’m going to become the go-to person to get things done. I’m going to say yes to everything, and I’m going to make myself indispensable, and that’s exactly what I did.
It was only a couple of weeks before I was about to go on maternity leave where, as people do, started to offer me series of advice. one person said to me, ‘I was on my fellowship when I went on maternity leave. I got a nanny and I returned to work after two weeks.’ I go, okay. Someone else said to me, ‘I wrote my fellowship on the first 12 weeks after giving birth. They don’t do much for the first 12 weeks.’ I think, okay, I should be doing something with this maternity leave. Then someone else said to me, ‘Make maternity leave look like it never happened on your CV.’ What that really said to me was, I really need to make the most of this maternity leave.
Five days after giving birth, and a one-litre haemorrhage, and I was very green under the eyes, I had that laptop open. I was back up and working with a baby next to me, sending out requests to project partners across Europe, sorting all the budgets and the reports for the impending project reporting period. It was absolutely madness when I look back on it, but I continued to operate in that way for quite a number of years after that.
This is me on my second maternity leave. This time I’ve got two under two tag-teaming me at night. I didn’t just take one project with me on mat leave. I just continued with all my projects on mat leave, and although I’m smiling in that picture, I can remember so clearly that my face was so achy it hurt. I started to look around and think, how are people doing this? How are all these academics doing this? Maybe I’m deficient in something. I went to the doctors, had all the blood tests, not deficient in anything. It turns out that I wasn’t deficient. I actually had an excess of something, and that excess is what I like to call superhuman mode.
You know, superwoman, superman, superhuman, that running on adrenaline, 200 miles per hour, saying yes to everything, go, go, go, 100 per cent all of the time. It wasn’t really until I found myself awake one morning, a really hard lump in my left breast, that I really stopped to pause and think what impact that’s had on my health.
Two weeks later I was at a radiographers office, and as they ran the probe over that little pea sized lump they said, ‘It’s not what you think.’ They said, ‘You’ve had a lymph node that’s migrated from your armpit to your breast tissue. Have you been really poorly recently?’ I said, ‘No, not poorly.’ as I was walking back to the car I remember thinking to myself, I’ve been going too hard for too long. Something has to change.
I have to change and I have to be different in some way. It took me another couple of years to really find how to go about doing that, how to be different, how to manage my time and energy and how to really put my own priorities first, and that’s how I ended up in coaching.
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Many things influence career decisions, some are on a professional level, some are personal.
This part of the session explored how to support your postdoc in becoming productive, through examining ways of establishing priorities.
We may have gone off at a tangent today. So shift number one we’ve been talking about – oh, someone dropped in the chat box. Thanks, [?Lucia 0:00:12.0] says, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ Thank you.
So priorities. How do we shift priorities? The problem really is this overwhelm epidemic. So a couple of hundred years ago, we had the Industrial Revolution and economic value started to be measured at an hourly rate. So how much someone could pay you to own an hour of your time. So therefore, to increase the amount you were earning, you had to increase the volume of hours you were working, and that’s really when busyness started to be culturally celebrated.
Do you remember a few years ago where you were saying, ‘Oh, I’m just so busy,’ and people would think that that’s a good thing? So that’s when ‘I’m crazy busy’ began to become a badge of honour. The number-one time management mistake then is trying to be more productive, trying to squeeze even more out of every last second of every day. Instead of doing that, yes, we need structures around our time, but actually making the shift from time to energy management because, like the Industrial Revolution, productivity is not like a machine. If I put the same input every day, I’m going to get the same product and output every day.
As humans, we have different energy levels at any given time of day and every day. So what we are able to put in doesn’t always equate to the same output and we need to be more conscious about that as well. So we’re going to make that shift from time to energy management. The way in which we’re going to do this is through a platform for your leadership. So I want you to think about your foundation for growth like a stool, like a wooden stool with five legs, kind of, a weird stool, but like a five-legged stool. Each of the different legs is a different pillar of your leadership.
So the first pillar is relationships. So here we’re talking about your intimate relationships, family, friends, colleagues, all that connection that you have with other people. Of course, if you are having massive arguments with your partner and you’ve spent the night on the sofa, you’re not going to be showing up so well in all the other areas of your life. We’ve got health as the second pillar, sometimes known as vitality. So health is not just your physical health. Health incorporates your emotional health and also spiritual health if that’s relevant to you as well. Yes, and then the third one is career. That’s probably self-explanatory. It’s what you’re doing day in, day out.
Then there’s wealth, making sure that we don’t lose sight of measuring and testing what’s coming in and what’s going out and that long-term wealth strategy, how I’m going to leave a legacy through the medium of money. Then the fifth one is personal development. So this is what you’re doing right here, right now, and that’s personal development for yourself but also for your career. You can have personal development in relationships, you might go to relationship counselling. You can have personal development in health, you can get a personal trainer, you might have a nutritional therapist.
You can have personal development in wealth, you might have an independent financial adviser, for example. So when you can get all of these five pillar areas stable, if something happens like you get made redundant and a pillar just gets knocked out completely, if you have stability in all the other pillar areas, your platform for leadership stays stable and your emergency pillar of your network comes in to shore up that stool leg, but if you are only investing in your career and all the other pillars have, you know, gone off and out the window and the career pillar gets knocked out, you’re completely flat, everything collapses.
So in order to find balance in our lives, we need to learn how to plan and implement those plans for multiple different competing areas of your life. I’m going to have a look at how to do that next. If I can do that. So you’re going to take a performance audit right now. I’m going to drop the workbook for today in the chat box in case you want to do it in the workbook, but essentially, we’ve got those five different leadership pillar areas and you’re going to give them a score between zero and ten, where ten out of ten is, I’m doing amazing in that area of my life. I can’t see how it could be any better, and zero out of ten is like, oops, I completely forgot that that was a thing in my life. You’re going to give it a score between zero and ten for each one. You don’t need to overthink this, just whatever score comes to your mind quite intuitively.
You’re going to record them either in your workbook or on a piece of paper, just each pillar area out of ten, and you can drop them in the chat box if you want. Then the action two is to reflect, what’s your biggest opportunity to improve? It may not be your lowest score. I want you to think about the next three months. If you had the opportunity to improve one or two pillar areas in the next two months, which ones would those be? It might be actually that right now you’re writing a fellowship or a grant and you need to focus on career in the next three months but also not detrimental to your health or not detrimental to your relationships. It might be that, you know, I’ve forgotten about wealth and I need health as well. So have a think about those and then we’ll have a discussion afterwards.
So I’m going to go quiet to allow yourself to do the audit and the reflection and then just come over into the chat box and share your reflection when you’re ready. If you have questions on how we’re doing this exercise, just bring yourself off mute. So what you can do with your postdocs and for yourself as well is split the year into four 90-day plans. You can have a planning session with your postdocs and for yourself as well.
Each 90 days you’re going to have three 28-day checkpoints. I’ve used 28 days because of February and all the things, but you can have it just on the last day of every month if you want to, and you’re going to have these checkpoints. What is my A1, the most important prioritised task that I want to have completed in each different pillar area by the end of December? If it was a quarter, you would then have by the end of November and the end of October as well, but because we’re already, you know, approaching the end of November, I’ve just put December here now to take us to the end of the year. So you’ll have an A1 task. You can also have an A2 and A3, but just to keep it simple, I’ve just put an A1 as well.
So A1 is absolutely has to be done by the end of the 28th of December and A2 is also it has to be done by then but it’s slightly lower priority than the A1. A3, obviously a lower priority again. You can have B level tasks which would be it will be nice to complete by December but it’s not going to set off any fires if I don’t, and C level tasks are like I’ll see if I get to it, but again, it’s not a priority. D can be for delegation if you want to do that too. So what this can look like is for example, A1 might be complete method section of a journal article. This could be the one that you do with your postdoc.
Personal development could be apply for three jobs by the end of Christmas. Then make sure you put a reward in for completion within the context of work, like, you know, at the end of the year, shall we go on a lab bowling trip when these things are done, when everyone’s A1 tasks are done, shall we have a lab lunch out? Shall we have a one-to-one mentoring lunch? Whatever you choose to do, but make sure you recognise and you reward those postdocs for the completion of these tasks.
Ask them to complete their A1 tasks in their own time in health, relationships and wealth as well. So let them take their own ownership of the other priority areas as well, and they should also feed into that personal development and career pillar as well. It’s not just the dictating of what they should be doing, but it’s a co-creation of those tasks. Does that make sense, everybody? So we’re going to get them to plan and have A1 tasks.
Then what we do is get them to work backwards. So they’ll have milestones for November and October, if we were working on quarter four plans, and then if they know that okay, I’ve got to finish that by the end of October, like, my experiments to be able to even complete the method, by the end of – the method section of the journal by the end of December, then they can start to plan for week on week, what are my A1 tasks to be able to work towards the overall A1?
So what we’ll do is an Agile style weekly meeting with them. So get them to brain dump all the things that are going on that they need to do. That can be just brain dump them on a piece of paper and then separate them out under each pillar areas. Get them to prioritise those tasks. A, absolutely has to be done, B, it would be nice to get to that, C, I’ll see if I get to it. D is for delegation. If the person they’re thinking of to delegate to would absolutely say yes, what could they delegate off that list or what could you if you were doing this.
Then get them to sub-prioritise. If your A1 task is write a grant, it’s too big. We need to break it down into all its constituent parts. That’s when we end up with A1, A2, A3, etc. What you want to do on a weekly basis is to get them to share their A1 task in each pillar area or at least career and personal development, and you can obviously leave the rest to them, but make sure you say, ‘and you should also be planning in these areas too.’ What you’ll do is a review on last week. ‘Okay, this is what you said you were going to do for your A1 task last week. How did it go towards that?’
Get them to tell you and then get them to show you their A1 task and plans for the next week. Get them to check, is this a realistic time frame? Are we going overboard here based on what you’ve got on your list? Then you want to hear, are there any impediments to your progression? Is there an instrument that’s broken down? Are you going on holiday and you need to prepare for that? Are you going on an interview? Like, have you suddenly taken on something that you shouldn’t have taken on? I don’t know, but get them to state any impediments that they can see towards their progress that week or in the future, so what’s coming up.
In corporations and companies, they often run the Agile style of meeting on a daily basis, like first thing in the morning, what I did yesterday, what I plan to do today, what are my impediments to progression, if any? You know, that totally depends on what kind of relationship you have with those postdocs or staff members and how frequently you want to use this meeting, but at least on a weekly basis, we should be checking in on how people are doing and reviewing.
If we are not taking the interest to review with people what’s going on and plan with them, their work loses importance, in our eyes but also in theirs. They think that, ‘Oh, I’ve been delegated this task, but nobody bothered to check how that went, so it can’t have been that important for them in the first place.’ So it’s that delegation without follow up is that abdication of responsibility. So we don’t want to micromanage, but we do want to check in and say, ‘Thank you. That was really important that you did that thing for me,’ whatever it is, ‘and I really appreciate it. How did that go for you?’
If you don’t plan your day, someone else will. You will be dictated by the emails that come in, the team messages that come in, the dictating of whatever comes your way and those will become the priority. We’ll do everything for everybody else so we don’t let other people down. Whereas what we want to do is make sure we plan our day, including time to respond to other people if we need to, like a two-hour block in the afternoon for other people’s priorities, but the rest of the time needs to be already planned for our own stuff. That’s the same for your postdocs, too. So we need to make sure that they’re planning effectively.
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To create a stable platform for growth, it is important to pay attention to every aspect of life, personally and professionally.
Performance cannot be equal and constant in each aspect of life. Auditing one’s performance is an important step to identifying opportunities for growth. Keeping track of progress in each aspect will help to maintain balance in life.
Using different tools to keep track of progress and setting regular checkpoint meetings can help your postdoc feel more confident in their own development.
This part of the session explored the concept of boundaries, their importance, and laid out some ways of setting these boundaries.
The next shift that I want to move onto is boundaries. We talked a little bit about boundaries today, working evenings and weekend as standards. The boundary somehow has slipped. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and they say yes when they really mean it.
The definition of boundaries are simply a list of what’s okay and what’s not okay for us. The way in which we’re going to look at boundaries is through a little exercise. It’s called The Hearth and the Realm. So, I will need to get a clean sheet of paper, unless you have somehow managed to print out the workbook since we’ve all been sat here, I’m sure you probably haven’t. I want you to draw these three circles on your piece of paper. There’s a circle for you, a slightly bigger circle, for something called the hearth; a slightly bigger circle for something called the realm. I’ll explain which each one is in a moment.
We’re going to have a look at where you’re giving away time and energy indiscriminately for, and where we need to place some new boundary lines. Let’s have a look at the workbook. So, we always want to make sure that when we are thinking about time and energy, that you are at the centre of everything, making sure that you’re meeting those basic needs for food, sleep, water, exercise, fresh air, connection time, and alone time. Because those things are like a phone battery, whenever they’re on the red zone, we’re not showing up as a resourced person, we’re going to show up in a disempowered state of some sort. There is a boundary line then between you and the next sphere of your life, which is the hearth.
So, if you think about the word hearth, it is a fireplace. It’s a small number of people who can sit round your fire, those people who you will give time and energy to and go into deficit for. I think of my children, no matter how many times they get up in the night, I’m going to keep responding to it and sorting it out. I will go into energy deficit willingly for those specific people, my husband, my mum, my dad, one of my best friends, and my three children, but that’s it. So, it’s a small number of people who you’re willing to go into the red zone for, and hopefully, you’ll be able to top yourself back up to to green.
We’re not always so great at doing that though. So, I want you now to put the names of the people, not how you would like it to be, but the people you are currently giving indiscriminately to your time and energy, even if you’re in energy deficit. Even if you don’t really have enough to give, you keep giving to these people. Who are those people in your life currently? Should work be in the hearth? So, we’re thinking about specific people, and, yes, your boss might be in the hearth, your colleagues might be in your hearth, your postdocs might be in your hearth.
Who are you giving time and energy to, working evenings for, weekends for, doing things when you’re not okay in yourself? Who are the people that you are still giving time and energy to? Right here, right now, today, as things currently stand. So, if the people in your hearth are the people who you are willing to give time and energy to, even if you don’t have enough to give, then the next boundary line is your realm.
So, the realm is all the people that you want the best for, that you care about, but you’re not willing to go into energy deficit for. So, again, I think about my brother, my nephews, I love them, I want the best for them, but I’ve got three of my own. I can’t give any more if I’m already in energy deficit. I think about I go swimming in the mornings. All the people I talk to at the swimming pool, I like them, I want the best for them, but it’s a no if I don’t have any more to give. I’ve got other friends that are in the realm. I have other people, groups of people, in my life. I have my clients. Who else should be in your realm, as things currently stand?
So put the names or a group of names, just give it a title if it’s a group, to represent all the people that you care about, but you’re not willing to go into energy deficit for, as things currently stand right here, right now, today, not as you would like things to be. Then there’s another boundary line between the realm and the rest of the world, of course. Those people beyond your realm will be in other people’s realms.
We don’t need to worry about them. If someone’s calling you on the phone about Bitcoin, we don’t need to give time and energy to it by apologising or listening. You can just say no because they’re not part of your realm. So, I want you to have a look at the hearth and the realm. Is there anyone who’s in your hearth currently that shouldn’t be there? If you find anyone, just circle them, and draw an arrow across the boundary line into the realm. Do that first.
Have you found some people there that shouldn’t be there really? Then the same with the realm. Is there anyone in your realm that actually should be outside the realm? Anyone in your realm where you think, ‘My hearth’s looking a little bit bare right now, maybe I need to fill an extra few seats by the fire, and I need to bring more people into my life.’ So, either draw an arrow outside the realm or bring some people in closer to your hearth.
Then when you’re faced with an opportunity or a phone call or a request, you can have a check-in with yourself. Where am I in terms of my energy levels today? Do I have enough to give to this person in my realm, or do I have to say no? Or if it’s someone in my hearth, and I’m going to give to them, how am I going to top back up those energy levels and focus on myself to be able to then serve and give to other people?
The last thing I want you to check for in this map are what I call crazy-makers. So crazy-makers are these people in your lives that drama follows them everywhere. I think of my sister-in-law. If you get a phone call from this person, they’re going to be on the phone for a long time, like an hour or so, just talking, talking, talking. It’s just going to be a complete drain on your energy. So, if you have a crazy-maker, just note that you have them, and just decide where in the picture do you want to put them.
Do they need to be right at the edge of the realm? Do they need to know their place with you? Do they need to be cast out of the realm? What is it that you need to do to protect yourself from the crazy-makers that are occurring in the world today? So, as we talked about, if there’s anyone that needs to be moved across a boundary line, draw it, and then you will be able to refer back to this whenever a request comes in. ‘Wait, where are they? Okay. Do I give, do I not give? What do I need to do here?’
That’s when boundary-setting conversations come into their own. Having done this, you may have your postdocs at your hearth, when actually they need to be in the realm. If they’re at your hearth, you are probably at their hearth too. So, they may also need you to set that boundary to help them have that boundary as well. It works both ways. So, we’re going to have a look at some boundary-setting conversations, because the best way you can allow them to be able to have boundaries with you is for you to set boundaries with them, and model them really greatly. So, we need these boundary-setting conversations to help them.
So, we’ve got a reclaiming space. This is where you have tried to put a boundary in place in the past; somehow, it’s not really worked, and you want to reclaim that boundary and make it work. There are general boundary settings for people in a realm that happen in the moment, we just need to come up with a boundary. There’s saying no gracefully, which I’m sure we all need; then there’s boundary-setting for people outside of your realm. So, these are all non-confrontational conversation templates that set both parties up to win and do not result in conflict.
It’s a win/win situation. It’s polite and it’s every time you use these conversations you can build on the wins and go, ‘It actually did work. I’ll use that again.’ So, let’s have a look at reclaiming space. Let me give you an example, or you can drop me examples in the chat box. Where have you said, ‘In the past, I’ve always?’ It might be, ‘In the past, I’ve always,’ I don’t know, ‘responded to your emails within one hour,’ then set the boundary, ‘I’m not able to do that anymore.’ So, my intention is not to drop my level of support with you; actually, if we put in place two specific time blocks every day where I will respond to messages, you’ll be able to work your experiments around my ability to respond to you. That’s just one example.
For a postdoc, it might be, ‘In the past, I’ve always said yes to everything you’ve asked me to do. I’m no longer able to do that.’ My intention isn’t to not be productive or not do great work, but what I need from you is to understand what the priorities are here and where there is leeway to drop things that are not the highest priority. So, it works both ways. You modelling it will allow them to as well, and you can talk them through a need to put a reclaimed space boundary in, ‘You might need to do this as well.’
We have general boundary-setting. So, these are for people in your realm, and this is for things that happen in the moment. So, you want to acknowledge the person, ‘It’s fine if you choose to,’ let’s, for example, say, smoke, and then state the boundary, ‘but that doesn’t really work for me in my office.’ Consider if it’s a dealbreaker, ‘If it continues, I won’t be able to work with you anymore.’
If it’s not a dealbreaker, collaborate then straight away on a way forward. So ‘It’s fine if you choose to smoke, it doesn’t work for me in my office. So, if you go outside to the smoking shelter, when you come back upstairs, we can continue with our meeting.’ I’m just making stuff up here, but you get the idea of how to use this conversation template. The next one, which you will all need, is learning how to say no gracefully.
Who here falls into the trap of saying yes when someone asks you to do something first? Yes. Or you do that hesitating thing, which allows the other person to wheedle their way in until you do say yes. It’s really hard sometimes, really hard, especially if those requests are coming from someone maybe more senior to you, that can cause problems and sometimes getting better at avoiding it. Yes. So, this is a template for anyone who does struggle with saying no, but you can also teach it to your postdocs as well. So instead of saying yes or no, start the sentence with thank you, ‘Thank you for asking me to bake a cake at the cake sale at school,’ then state the boundary, ‘but I’m not able to do that with my current schedule.’
Again, consider if it’s a dealbreaker. Baking cakes is not a dealbreaker for me, so I’m going to collaborate on a way forward. So, ‘Let me see, is there anyone else who might be able to help you with that?’ And then if you do really like doing the thing, you just literally can’t do it this week or on my timescale, so ‘I do actually really like baking cakes, so next time that comes up, do please come to me first, and I’ll make sure that I have enough time in my schedule if it is at all possible.’ So that way, we can be polite, because we’ve said thank you to start with. We’ve been helpful in collaboration with the other person, and we’ve set them up to win. We’ve told them how we want to interact in this process.
The only issue with this is if you still come from a position of ‘They’re probably going to wheedle around me anyway, but I’m going to say the words,’ they will get that vibe off you and they will manage to find a way. So, I really need you to come from a position of authority from within. Sometimes I tell people to think about putting their crown on, like the king or the queen, saying no. How would you say no if you were to do that? If you were to be the king or the queen? Like, thank you, you would speak differently. You would probably stand differently. You would probably project with a different kind of authority. So come from that place.
Finally, we have boundary-setting for people outside of the realm. You get the phone call, do you want to give your life savings to this particular charity? It might just be a no. It’s not, ‘I already support other charities.’ It’s just a no. We don’t need to give additional time, energy, or attention to people outside the realm. So don’t feel guilty, just don’t give it a second thought. So, the actions for you from this section, number two on boundaries, are to model good boundaries.
The best way you can help a postdoc is to model what good boundary-setting looks like and support them to facilitate boundary-setting conversations using these templates. So, if they’ve had an example of you’ve discovered that they’ve said yes to something from somebody, another PI, and they’ve asked them to do something, whereas actually, they should have said no, teach them how to say no effectively in the future, or how to reclaim the space if they’ve let that boundary slip. So, teach them how to use these two. They’re all in the workbook.
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Setting boundaries is an essential step for keeping balance in life and maintaining priorities. Setting boundaries is also related to what importance we assign to something or someone the boundary is linked to. We can stretch ourselves and our boundaries when these are connected to someone that we love. But similarly, we may be unwilling to do the same for someone that we don’t value as much.
Conversation around boundaries can feel hard and confrontational, but there are ways to address boundaries while being respectful.
The best way to help each other, and especially your postdoc, is to model what good boundary setting looks like.
This part of the session explored ways of providing feedback in a constructive way, as a leader.
Our last shift for today’s session is shift number three and we’re going to be talking about feedback. For lots of postdocs, they procrastinate because they are concerned about the feedback they’re going to get. I’ve had postdocs that talk to me about the blinking cursor syndrome, because of perfection, like, ‘I can’t write the perfect sentence. It just blinks at me for hours.’
I’ve had people talk about the feedback that they get from their supervisors is longer than the thing they’ve written and it is really detrimental to their emotional states and their ability to handle that feedback long-term. The nature of the game in academia is that we actually tear things apart because we’re trying to make them better, but it often feels like a personal attack.
I want you to think about this for yourself, first of all. What situations result in you feeling criticised personally? Where do you feel these personal attacks coming…? Whether that’s in the past or right now, what kinds of situations? Dump them in chat box for me. What impact does it have on you when you feel criticised? How does it make you feel inside? Andrew is saying, ‘Referee reports and complaining emails.’ What’s the impact on you? What happens? What happens inside? What happens to your motivation? What happens to you when you get criticised? Do you go into the overwhelming spiral of thoughts and you can’t think clearly because you’re catastrophising in your own head? What happens?
I’m just talking about myself now. Let’s have a look at this. For the interest of time because we’ve been very good at sharing today. Just some reflections for you but we’re not going to spend so much time on it. Think about what situations might have postdocs feeling criticised. Is it the blunt email? Is it…? Do you notice that they respond funny when you give them feedback on their papers or their grant applications? What is it? When they’re giving presentations and then you ask them questions, what do you notice in them? What impact does that have? Do you notice that, then, you don’t get anything for another two weeks when, really, you were expecting something two days later? What actually happens with this feedback?
In criticism, I always like to go back to the etymology of words to find out, what did it mean originally before we made it mean something else? This comes from the 1600s. When I looked at it, I was like, is that real? It’s, ‘The art of judging and defining the qualities or the merits of a thing.’ First instituted by Aristotle, ‘A standard of judging well. The chiefest part of which is to observe excellencies.’ Criticism wasn’t really about tearing things about apart. It was finding the quality in something and saying, ‘There’s quality here. How can we make this even better?’
I think we need a shift in seeing criticism for the gift that it really is. We’re going to have a look at shifting into communication as a leader with this feedback, how to go from that feeling of sub-standard to that rapid-growth learning tool. Where we’ve got these boundaries that are non-existent clearly communicated and respected and that confidence from feeling criticised to actually feeling empowered. When you look at the reports about millennials in the workplace – and most of your postdocs now are probably falling into the millennial category and, if not, in the next five years’ time 85 per cent of the workforce will be millennials – there are six major shifts that are happening in the workplace.
You’ll notice that millennials may be different in the workplace. In the past, it may have been as standard that people will just drive themselves into the ground. In the millennial mindset, it’s no longer acceptable to be in a workplace like that. They’re thinking it’s not just about the money for millennials, it’s about their purpose in life, the impact they want to create. This may be the same for you if you’re not a millennial. You may be driven purely by purpose and money is a by-product. These are the big shifts.
Also, it’s not just about job satisfaction. It’s about personal growth and development in a role as well. It’s not that I see my supervisor as my boss. I want to see my supervisor as my coach, someone that’s going to help me, week on week, improve and get better and coach me through that, coaching/mentoring. My annual review isn’t what they’re looking for anymore. We don’t want a yearly report. We actually want ongoing conversations. That’s where the coaching comes in.
Ongoing coaching conversations about how things are going, how I could improve. They want more of that. Instead of focussing on weaknesses, we’re making the big shift to actually focus on where are my strengths and where can I create the leadership pathway for my strengths, my natural talents and capabilities and let someone else, who’s good at the other stuff, do that stuff. Let’s focus where we’re good at and create mitigation strategies for blind spots. Get mastery level at the things that we’re really talented for.
I was a great analytical chemist but I’m so, so, so not talented at it at all. You can learn to be good at these things, you can become competent, but it was so much harder work than someone who had a natural talent for it. Then, there’s my job. It’s no longer just, I go to my work, it’s my job. It’s people’s lives. It’s people’s identities. They really truly care, even though it may look different in the expression of it for millennials. It’s a bit like the company Netflix. If you haven’t read the book ‘Netflix No Rules, Rules’ read it. They’re no longer seeking approval from the boss. They’re seeking to do what’s best for the company, the vision, the organisation as a whole.
Netflix always says to new employees, you’re not going to lose your job if you think about it like betting, like chips on a table. Some chips, you will win, some bets, you will lose and some will still be in play. They say, ‘You don’t lose your job [at Netflix] because a bet didn’t work out. Instead, you lose your job for not using the chips to make big things happen or for showing consistently poor judgement over time.’
Feedback, lots of feedback, helps people make better judgements and makes big things happen. If you want them to get the big result, you need to give more feedback. We also know, a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, where he walks around naked – but it’s only the little boy at the front who goes, ‘Ha-ha, you’ve got no clothes on’ – the higher up you get in an organisation, the less feedback you receive and the more likely you are to come to work naked. It’s not just giving feedback to your postdocs, but it’s encouraging them to give feedback honestly to you too through the framework and we can all learn and grow from that. I like to use the A4 Feedback Guidelines. In this report here that I wrote for Jobs.ac.uk called ‘Powerful Mistakes’ there are three different feedback methods. There’s the sandwich feedback.
There is the feed-forward, feedback, which is used at organisations like GSK. You’ve got lots of different methods but I’m going to share this one with you today. This is direct feedback so it could be construed as the most critical, but I want to teach you a really positive way of doing it. Whenever you are giving feedback to someone, tell them you have feedback for them and ask them, do you want the feedback? If yes, do you want it now or do you want it in a separate meeting? Do you want it written or do you want me to do it orally in the meeting? Get their permission to even share the feedback in the first place. It will go a long way because they will have had a say in whether or not they receive that feedback.
Then, tell them I’m going to take you through the A4 Feedback Guidelines when I’m giving you this feedback. I’ve thought through this. The things I’ve thought through before giving this feedback are ‘assisting’. Did it aim to assist you? Was there a positive intent behind that feedback? You can say, ‘Yes, my aim was to assist you.’ Was it ‘actionable’? Did it focus on what you could do differently? I made sure that my intent was to help you and that I did something and fed back something that was actionable. Then, remembering to ‘appreciate’ the feedback that someone has given you the gift of feedback to help you learn and grow.
Then, tell them ultimately you get to ‘accept or discard’ that feedback in full or in part. It’s your choice what to do with this feedback, so let’s give an example here. I run a weekly, sometimes a bi-weekly newsletter called ‘Coffee and Notes’. Someone once responded to my email with, ‘I don’t like the way that you sign off your emails. I think that this approach would work better because it’s more formal,’ or something like that. This person had actually… I’m appreciating it. This person had taken the time to give me the gift of their feedback. Did it aim to assist me? They did want to assist me. They said, ‘I really like what it is that you write about but I don’t like the way you sign off these emails.’ I think I used to put, ‘Speak soon,’ and then my name. They said, ‘It’s too informal.’ Was it actionable? Yes, it did focus on what I could do differently. Do I choose to change how I sign off my emails? Then, ultimately, I could have accepted or discarded it in part or in full. Having reflected on it, I thought it is a bit ridiculous that someone has sent this feedback to me but when I thought about it, I thought, yes, I am. I’m going to change how I sign it off. I now sign it off, ‘Keep opening up,’ or, ‘Keep working on your time and energy,’ whatever it is but I did actually change it so it was actually a really great piece of feedback.
That’s just a tiny, weeny, stupid example that this can be used for anything that you’re working on. The key here is to tell them the framework, gain permission and ask for how they want to receive that feedback. Then, ask them to do the same for you. When you get feedback, if you are up for this and you’re still doing in-person things where you actually go to work, pin it on your door and say, ‘This is what feedback I am currently working on.’ Pin it to the door, show how important it is for you to receive feedback, and what you’re working on. That would be the ultimate thing to do with feedback.
My Q and A for you today we only have a few minutes before we finish but I want you to think about, what has been most helpful for you? If you met someone in the corridor now, someone at home, what would you say to them? What would be your top thing? Was it priorities? Was it boundaries? Was it feedback? Drop me one word in the chat box or a phrase to say which was the most helpful part. I’m not going to go into all of the questions, just what was most helpful. I thought I was going to have ages. Anyone wants to follow up with me on anything that we’ve talked about today, you can drop me an email. You can visit my website. I’m mostly on LinkedIn actually, not really Twitter, but you can get me there too. I’d love to connect with you and find out what’s going on. Drop me a message if you need any support after this session.
[?Ceri 0:12:36.4] is saying, ‘Priorities.’ Maria, boundaries for you. Andrew is, ‘Boundaries.’ Excellent. Really well done. If anyone has a quick question for me before I finish, we’ve got two minutes so you can bring yourself off mute. Melissa was, ‘The Hearth and the Realm was a useful exercise. I realise that work and even small work commitments are all in my hearth.’ Yes, so something has to change. Sometimes there’s a moment like mine was a big moment. Sometimes it’s just a realisation that can kick-start that. Well done everyone. I have super enjoyed being here with you. Enjoy the workbook and I hope to see you all very soon, have a great rest of your day. Bye, everybody.
Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Hannah. I’m just putting in the chat a plug for our next session in January on ‘Building Intercultural Competence’ with Sally Walker who will be discussing how intercultural competence can help you and also help your postdocs as well. Full details and the link for that is in the chat. That’s January 12th. Thank you everybody for coming. That was an absolutely fantastic session.
Bye, everybody. Have a great day.
Carrie, are you talking about the productivity and things? Hannah has run sessions for our postdocs, as well. I’m not too sure how much of what we’ve covered today was covered in your sessions with the postdocs, Hannah.
I did the five pillar areas on how to plan and priorities, how to focus on basic needs. You know that ‘You’ part of the Hearth and the Realm. How to really make sure we’re getting enough food, sleep, water, exercise as a priority to be able to show up resource. We talked about habit stacking, how we can tag on new habits to things we already do in order to get more momentum with those basic needs. We didn’t, so much, talk about boundary setting in that session. They have done something on self-competence with another coach so I’m hoping that that was in that session but someone might be able to confirm.
I think we have done something for the postdocs so I’m hoping it’ll make its way onto the final portal for the postdocs as well.
I think the priority setting is your supervisor in your realm or in your hearth and everything. I think that would be really quite useful.
Yes, we didn’t do the Hearth and the Realm exercise. We did a mini five-day challenge so it was just little 15-minute exercises to try and get them kickstarted with their time and energy.
Yes, anything like this is useful for them. I think the problem is they think they don’t have time to come.
I know! I was one of the ones where I’d book onto these things and then not show up because I’m far too busy.
I think the worksheets, there’s nothing in there that wouldn’t be useful for a postdoc to see as to if I say, ‘These are types of things we discussed in this training that could be useful for us together as a team,’ sort of thing.
Yes, maybe it’s something for you to feed back, Andrew, to Prosper in case they want to bring this session into a resource for the postdocs too, to see what we talk about on the other side. That might be helpful.
Sure, I will definitely do that.
Melissa says, ‘I feel like my postdocs have loved it and have been coming really regularly as far as I know.’ That’s great to hear Melissa.
That’s good. Thanks, then. Thank you very much.
Thanks, everybody. Bye for now!
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Feedback can often be perceived as criticism.
Communication as a leader is essential and it must enable the receiver to feel empowered in their own growth.
Feedback must be constructive, but it is ultimately the receiver that should decide whether to act on it or not without feeling forced one way or another.