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Develop from Within: Self-awareness for personal and professional development in academia

A couple of weeks ago I finished the first of the two part Develop from Within (DfW) programmes for academic staff at a University near me.  To give it the full title –Develop from Within:  Self awareness for personal and professional development.  To be clear about what I mean by academic staff I mean mixed groups of staff from any and all of the academic career pathways, at any level, and from any subject.  To all intents and purposes what DfW involves is a time and a virtual space for people to speak about their behaviour preferences and how they support and/ or hinder them while at work and play.

Even as I share this high level picture of DfW with you I recall the feeling of a knot in my stomach when I suggested DfW as a continuing professional development activity for academic staff.  The feeling came from my response to a bunch of assumptions I was holding about CPD and academic staff back then.  For example, academics are busy people and will not give up time to focus on themselves.  They are unlikely to be open to conversations about the behaviour preferences with people they have never met.  They might not be at ease with communications across the boundaries of hierarchy, subject type or job family.  Fortunately, I prescribed and took a dose of my own medicine in not having my actions limited by my assumptions, and made my proposal based on something that I felt was supported by evidence:  that there are very few opportunities for academic staff to think out loud about their motivations, values, and behaviours. and how they help or hinder their work and wellbeing.

Develop from Within has evolved from being for PDRAs into a programme made available to mixed groups of academic staff from all subjects, all levels of experience, and often from under-represented groups in HE

What has clearly been shown in the 8 years since I first delivered DfW is that the experience is of enormous value to academics.  In this latest delivery, like all before, the experience of talking about themselves in a non-judgemental environment has been part of this value.  That’s not the crucial part though.  What makes DfW so powerful is that everyone talks about themselves while being listened to by a group of the peers, most often people they have not met before.  It is the learning that comes from speaking and knowing you are heard, and listening and incorporating other people’s experiences into your own that is so valuable.  It just doesn’t happen all that much in academia.  It’s exciting, and a little nerve wracking, to facilitate eight hours of conversation between strangers, as well as requiring courage and open-mindedness from each participant.  While the focus is self-awareness, the individual benefits include changes in approach to creativity, communication, relationships, influencing, leadership and wellbeing.  If you would like to know more read on and I will share a little more detail.

Some years ago I was approached by a university department to offer a developmental experience that would support career development in the postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA) community.  At the time, even more so than now, PDRA development opportunities were few and far between as PDRA status fell between student and staff status.

I had a moment where I considered passing on the opportunity as I am not a careers expert.  Much stronger though was my desire to offer something different in terms of professional development to this community, and more widely in academia.  I had a brilliant conversation with Katherine Jolley and Francesco Monzittu, both post-docs at the time.  They shared thoughts about personal and professional development from their lived experience and three of them came across particularly strongly.  Firstly, they felt that while skills development was talked about relatively frequently the coverage of the underlying behaviours, motivations and values was much less commonplace.   Secondly, they felt strongly that whatever activity was proposed it was one that needed to contribute towards building a community of post-docs, who were often left feeling isolated in their research environment.  Thirdly, whatever the experience it needed to offer value to them within the current context as well as supporting their development for the future.

My suggestion was to do something about developing self-awareness.  My thesis was, and still is, that an exploration of self-awareness leads to benefits that can be applied in many areas of professional and personal life, including in the area of career development.  I look back with gratitude to Gill Reid and Lynda Brown for being open to this suggestion and for commissioning the work that would lead to Develop from Within.

Develop from Within has maintained a framework throughout its evolution captured by the inner orange circle in this graphic.  Different stakeholder groups and different programme objectives have drawn on a range of other topics captured in blue and green

The pilot for Develop from Within was offered to a group of post-doctoral researchers, all working in the same department.  It involved two face-to-face sessions spread over a day and a half, and encouraged reflections on self-awareness fuelled by curiosity in a bespoke Lumina Spark behaviour preference profile created for each participant.  The positive feedback from this pilot was the basis for its evolution over the years between then and now.

Over the years the experiential learning at the core of DfW has served the needs of groups in a number of different subject areas.  It has been adapted to virtual delivery as mandated by the pandemic. The experience was once again so positive that the ease of access facilitated by virtual delivery made it possible to offer DfW to more heterogeneous groups of research staff.  At a practical level this meant being able to bring together people who were now used to a hybrid working model.  On a more exploratory level it created the possibility of bringing together researchers from different parts of the University, from different academic disciplines, and from different stages of their career.  This evolution of DfW coincided with the publication of the 2021 UK Government White Paper on Research and Development People and Culture Strategy.  The sub-title of this paper was ‘People at the heart of R&D’.  DfW offered a chance to contribute to higher levels of self-awareness in the academic community, offering greater understanding of similarities and differences between individuals, with benefits to relationships and collaborative working.  Certainly it something to help meet the needs laid out in the People and Culture strategy.

Since that first open invitation approach of 2022 nearly one hundred people have signed up for the programme, which in this format takes the shape of 2 x 4 hour virtual workshops.  The constituency has included attendees from all Faculties, and experience ranging from recent Fellows to Heads of Department.  Feedback has been hugely positive:  ‘This was a really good set of workshops, and more people in the University should do this training’; ‘Very interesting course! Lots of food for thought’; ‘I really enjoyed the relaxed and thoughtful/eloquent delivery of this training, and the tolerance to challenging ideas and interpretations in terms of applying the model to settings I recognised. Historically I've found 'people skills' type trainings sometimes don't translate or resonate as well to academic settings, so a course leader with experience of and understanding of that setting was particularly valuable’.

From the vantage point of the present I am pleased to look back to the time where I pitched the proposal for  Develop from Within:  Self-awareness for personal and professional development.  The experience of delivery, supported by the feedback from participants, has shown that there is a great deal of value in offering a time and a place for academics to think aloud about their motivations, values and behaviours.  The experience is one that builds on two long appreciated aspects of a coaching experience.  The first, noted by nearly all coachees involved in 1-2-1 coaching partnerships, is that it is a very different experience to speak your thoughts out loud, and to hear them as if for the first time, rather than have them swirling around in your mind, unspoken.  The second is that you can learn a great deal about yourself from speaking about yourself in front of colleagues, and you can learn about yourself by listening to others sharing about their own selves.  Many participants have particularly noted how this has been important to their DfW.

That's it for now! As is my wont I’ll conclude with a couple of enquiries to prompt your reflection.  I am looking forward to more DfW sessions later this academic year.  If you are interested in hearing more about them, please do get in touch with me.  You can do so through this link.

  • How might spending some time reflecting on behaviours, motivators and values support you to be more effective and efficient in your academic position?

  • What is your experience of the difference between reflecting on something in your own mind and speaking those thoughts out loud in a non-judgemental setting?

  • What benefits and challenges might you realise if you were to do this thinking and feeling out loud alongside a number of your colleagues?

  • What is there going on for you right now that might benefit from your focussed attention in an environment where you can tune into your thinking and feeling?





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