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Does your IRB need some help? Expert offers tips
Individuals are rarely the only problem
For IRB offices to run smoothly, employees need to work well together and count on each other when the work overflows.
So what should an IRB administrator do when the team is not in synch, deadlines aren't met, and morale suffers?
"The flow of work in IRB offices these days is so intense and there's so much paperwork and detail because federal funding agencies have increased the reporting requirements," says Laura Freebairn-Smith, MBA, a research associate in pediatrics, a doctoral candidate, and an instructor at the Drama School in Theater Management Program at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Freebairn-Smith also is the president of Organizational Design and Development Associates in Hamden, CT, and she has spoken in the field and has been published on the topic of building teams.
"IRB offices have to deal with the fact that they're under a lot of pressure and deadlines and in a high-risk situation for their universities because they're the legal oversight for these research experiments," Freebairn-Smith adds. "So there's intensity to their work that other units don't feel."
Also, much of the IRB office's paperwork is detail-oriented, and the stress of day-to-day production work can be difficult for a team to handle, she says.
"The other interesting thing about IRBs is that they're paid by the university, but they're also the policemen of the university's research," Freebairn-Smith says. "This creates an internal psychological tension that's not discussed a lot: how do you police the person who writes your paycheck?"
Due to all of these special factors, it's very important that IRB administrators pay special attention to their team's norms, guidelines, and psychological dynamics, she advises.
"The leader has to understand people's behavior and be more articulate about the psychological dynamics of the team," Freebairn-Smith says.
And it's crucial that an IRB office have an adequate number of employees, she notes.
"One IRB team I worked with was understaffed, and the stress was very high because they can't adjust the flow of work," Freebairn-Smith recalls.
The danger is that once an IRB becomes understaffed, employees stop taking vacations, and then the team runs the risk of real trouble and stress, she says.
To avoid this problem, the IRB administrator needs to convince higher-ups that the staffing should be increased in order to reduce the institution's financial and legal risks, she says.
Freebairn-Smith also offers these pointers on how to improve team work and management skills:
1. Remember that teams are organic entities onto themselves.
Teams are separate from any individual on the team, Freebairn-Smith says.
"They have their own developmental phases that are relatively predictable and observable if you're trained in how to do that," she explains.
"So my core premise when I teach team building is that you have to be an observer of your team's behavior," she says. "What you're doing is helping your team move through a phase at an appropriate moment, recognizing that it's an issue and working through it."
Standing back from one's own involvement in the team and looking at the team through an outsider's eyes is one way to be freed from the notion that a particular team is fantastic or horrible, Freebairn-Smith says.
"All teams have certain kinds of behaviors under certain conditions and are knowable or predictable," she says.
"If we only operate from one instance to the next, we don't understand what an aberration is and what's not," she says.
So it's important to look objectively at the team in terms of financial flow, leadership, and skills building, and then do an analysis and suggest a plan to make changes where needed, Freebairn-Smith says.
2. Pay persistent attention to the team.
"Be sure people take vacations and are not always operating under crunch deadlines," Freebairn-Smith says.
Too often an IRB office will work under emergency conditions, and employees are either explicitly or subtly discouraged from taking vacation or holiday time off, she says.
"This can go on for years," she adds.
"So an IRB office needs to structure the team and staff in a way that people can take breaks for holidays and vacations," Freebairn-Smith says.
This can be done through making sure there is adequate staffing, as well as cross-training staff and having people rotate their work on a regular basis, she explains.
"Don't let workers become numb to what they're looking at," Freebairn-Smith says. "When you have production lines that are rote, but require attention to detail, it's a good idea to have people rotate off that production line."
The person who is trained to review each protocol should be asked to do something else for a portion of the day, so he or she won't become zoned out and miss something important, she adds.
Also, keep in mind that the IRB office team will never reach nirvana, where everything runs blissfully well.
"There is no ideal end state that a team reaches," Freebairn-Smith says.
"We often have people say, 'Fix my team, and then I'm done,'" she says. "But a team is like a garden and always needs feeding and care."
To manage a team, one needs to pay attention to the team's regular activities and observe checkpoints throughout the year, she says.
Checkpoints are like performance reviews, working with staff to make career decisions annually to see where their careers are going, Freebairn-Smith says.
Every few years, it's time to ask for feedback from team members by conducting a customer survey, she says.
Ask these questions of individuals and the team as a whole:
"A good team-building consultant will help an organization construct an ongoing program and activities to make sure the team stays healthy," Freebairn-Smith says.
3. Problems on a team usually are not because of one individual.
"We tend in America to pick out an individual and say, 'If that person wasn't here the team would be fine,'" Freebairn-Smith says. "And 99 times out of 100, that's not true."
However, when a team has problems, usually the first step management takes is to get rid of one problem individual.
In an IRB office, this solution is tempting because one tardy employee or one person who is unable to keep up with the workload can have a profound impact on the team, but this person's problems likely are only a symptom of a bigger team issue.
"You always want to see if you can work it out with the person and try to figure out what the problem is," Freebairn-Smith says.
But it becomes a judgment call on the manager's part: is the employee's underlying problem due to a lack of individual skills or due to burnout caused by a team that is asked to do too much for its current staffing level?
"You need a manager to ask this question more often: Are these employees' competency skills and aptitudes a good fit for this work?" Freebairn-Smith says.
If the employees have adequate skills, then the underlying problem relates to the team and overall structure of the workplace.
Putting a team's problems into a greater context also is a more compassionate way to handle problems, Freebairn-Smith notes.
4. Learn techniques and model a team leader's impact.
"Leaders often underestimate the amount of power they have over people on their team," Freebairn-Smith says. "They underestimate the effect of their own behavior, words, and decisions, so I encourage them to slow down and be careful."
Also, some leaders follow a scarcity paradigm where they starve people for compliments, she says.
"There's more room in people's carts than they realize for giving out compliments and compassion to others," she says. "It's one of the few sources of energy on the planet that are unlimited."
Team leaders shouldn't scoop out undeserved praise, but they should be lavish with it when it's earned.
"We use role-playing and modeling to show people how they impact others on the team," Freebairn-Smith says.
"I watch team leaders in action, and then I mimic their actions in private, and they are blown away," she says.
There are simple body language mistakes that people make, such as nodding their heads too much, which sends the message that you're not really listening, she adds.