SRA Catalyst
February 2013
SRA Catalyst
Contributed Columns


Michael “Spanky” McCallister, Ph.D.
Principal, Grant Street Services




Show, Don't Tell (or The Attack of the Parentheses)

As an officially retired person, I am constantly encouraged by friends (even those I don’t bother when I’m bored) to “get involved” with something. This suggestion has three potential impeti (archaic plural of impetus):

  1. You are underfoot and making me nuts (from guess who).
  2. It is obvious that you don’t have any friends and you are hiding in the house (see above plus various meddling but well-meaning friends and family).
  3. You need to feed your head and do some stuff you’ve been putting off (internal voices and REAL friends).

One close buddy, hearing we were moving to our new university, really pushed for me to enroll in the renowned creative writing program. I did, and although much of the material was interesting, the program was a bit lockstep. I ended up in prerequisite courses with a bunch of sophomores. If it isn’t obvious to you why THAT didn’t work out, I will assume we’ve not met.

But I picked up one phrase in this short interlude. In discussing the class’s very first assignment, the instructor said, “Show, don’t tell.” We were writing stories and she wanted me to show the reader? Show them what?

“Show, don’t tell” stuck in my head. I feel that in our work we often “tell,” and while communicating information is necessary, “telling” also affects our relationship with our researchers. For example, I hate to have an office where my desk forms a barrier between me and those who come into the room to work. It’s an artificial barrier and also a wall to hide behind, like a podium on a stage. Being a Teller with a Big T puts us in a self-perceived position of power behind our Desk of Office, our barrier between being genuine human and our self-perception of our superior position. And given our intelligent and headstrong clientele, this is a disaster. They know that their role is what brings the research award and that the research administration role is that of a helper, NOT a boss.

We should be Showers (not like “take a shower, Stinky”) and model the behaviors and attitudes we would like to encourage in our researchers to engender cooperation and mutual respect. So many times I have heard from a rather imperious research administrator that a PI’s behavior had been impersonal, rigid or downright smart-alecky. Knowing that people tend to mirror the way other folks treat them, I am astounded at the lack of self-knowledge, that my colleague doesn’t realize the difference between telling and showing. For sure our colleague believes that the “helping” function of the job is being done (if rather directively), but what they are showing—impersonal behavior, an authoritarian attitude—triggers defensiveness and argument. Psych 101, modeling behavior (and you thought that course wasn’t useful!).

So a research administrator needs to be relaxed, open, friendly and helpful to engender positive interactions with those who seek our help. And this isn’t easy for many of us (Hello?), a common theme in this column. One has to be confident and in terms of work, this is a learned condition based on competence, not just experience measured in years of martyrdom. I remember an interview with a musician (Yep, again with the music) who described one of the rigorous parts of touring. Although weeks and months have gone into rehearsals, staging and getting the show down pat, every night on tour has to seem like the very first time you get the song right, a performance with all the excitement and power that perfect moment brings. I found the same phenomenon back when I acted in little theater (don’t laugh). Every audience deserved that First Night feeling and that is a difficult feat to maintain.

The people who depend on us deserve our best. We need to bring them enthusiastic, creative and interested collaboration, not the cold direction of a self-important lawgiver control freak (offense intended). Helpers can be genuine, controllers feel they must defend their position and authority and that defense engenders conflict. I like the former and have no time for the latter. I believe you shouldn’t either. I get to say that as it’s my column.

Watch how your researchers react to you. Look at them as a group, not as individuals, as there are always difficult folks in any population. Do you enjoy the way they react? And is that an accurate reflection of how you relate to them? Remember, you have to show, not tell. And I bet if you show them yours (positive, collegial and friendly behavior) they will show you theirs. Behavior, that is— Oh, come on, I was being nice.

Comments, opinions, just lonely, feeling the need to show yours?

Spanky, definitely a teller, but willing to show in very specific circumstances


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