How the Principles of Good Dating Practice Can Help You Build Better Research Relationships
One of the things that always gets either a chuckle or a grimace from the male police officers in some of my meetings is when I use the analogy of dating to explain research partnerships. The reality is, though, that a research partnership is like any other interpersonal relationship: you need trust, mutual understanding, some flexibility, some patience and an agreement on common goals. Without these things present on both sides of the relationship, you can be guaranteed a bumpy, unproductive ride.
Let me illustrate this point from a recent example. A few months back I advised several police services that my lab had an active interest in a topic of some importance to many of them and that we would be looking for opportunities to work with any interested potential partners. Immediately one of the agencies got back to us and some initial discussions were had. This culminated in a request for some documents, which were sent along with a suggestion that the researchers would stretch an already planned research trip a couple hours away to swing by this agency to sit down and have a face-to-face meeting. Three weeks passed without a response. Then the response came: they were rejecting the documents because they wanted specific wording and clauses and were now sending a template they preferred be used instead. No word about the meeting. No apologies for failing to communicate expectations. No apologies for disappearing for three weeks. Nada*.
Now let’s think about this in dating terms. You’ve met someone you’re interested in and they’ve expressed the interest is mutual. You agree to go out and you send her/him some plans and a proposed day. They then proceed to ghost you for three weeks and, when they resurface, reject your plans and say nothing about actually meeting up. Although I personally envision a more peaceful existence for my imaginary widowhood, I can pretty much guarantee that any guy who did this to me would get the following result: a string of very explicit, anatomically impossible suggestions, followed by a dial tone and/or social media block.
I’m fully aware that some of you who may be guilty of such behaviour will counter about how busy you are and the pressures of your position, on having to wait for such-and-such from your legal department, yadda, yadda, yadda. But here’s the thing: we’re all busy, princess. We all have to deal with insane deadlines, political pressures, health issues, family crises, and so on. No one in any relationship is immune from any of these things. And while those may be reasons why someone was incapable of doing X, Y, and Z, none of this absolves anyone from the responsibility of saying two little words: I’m sorry. Those words show accountability, empathy and a desire to build the trust necessary for developing the strong interpersonal relationships that produce the most fruitful and longest lasting collaborations.
When it comes to these types of relationships, I know of what I speak. My longest and strongest professional collaboration with a police service is with one where I have complete trust in the leadership team and solid bonds with many of the officers throughout the organization because they took the time to build trust, show empathy, express their interest and also their gratitude for the work we’ve done. If I’m not feeling great, I’ve screwed something up, I need a safe place to roll my eyes at some stupid thing or another, I can say so while I'm there and feel supported. All of my team members who’ve worked with this organization say the same thing, so it’s not unique to me. And what’s the result? We’ve completed something like half a dozen projects with them in 3 years. The cost to the organization? Some patience. Some trust. Some flexibility. Some kindness. Some willingness. And zero dollars. That's it.
Let's contrast my experiences there with what happened with another potential partnership that went sideways early on. A police leader responsible for dealing with crime in a location that consistently draws labels like 'most crime ridden place in Canada' reached out for help. He was open-minded, willing and eager for any assistance we could provide. During a subsequent conference call everything hit a major roadblock when another senior officer, invited into the call, began throwing out some rather barbed objections. Fairly quickly she let it be known that the issue was she perceived outside researchers as a threat to her status as the head of an analytics unit. "We can provide all of the research capacity needed," she said in unambiguous terms. Sometimes you just have to know when to fold 'em. So, I simply replied, "really? Then why aren't you doing it?" and then I said it was nice talking to everyone but I had other things to do and hung up. There are two harsh realities in this story:
1. regardless of how much a partnership might be desired by both sides, sometimes all it takes is one bad actor to tank a project;
2. academic research - particularly that which is both free to an agency and of good quality - is a limited commodity. There are far too few people willing to do applied policing work as it is, without having to deal with unnecessary roadblocks and unpleasant situations. When those things happen, most of the best researchers will walk. Why? Because typically - and I'm thinking of some of my colleagues in Canada and elsewhere - they have already formed longstanding, trust-based relationships with other agencies and can easily get projects done there. In other words, they're not desperately waiting for the phone to ring, yanno?
*That said, when the issue was discussed with someone else in the organization, they apologized immediate and offered to help out. #researchhero