Thursday, March 08, 2018

Bridging Leadership in Transdisciplinary Research Teams: Impact in Practice and Communities

Image result for bridging leadershipIn the course of my work as a practitioner and advocate, working with individuals and groups of different disciplines and practice is not novel and inter-and transdisciplinary work is but a requisite. As a professional nurse, employing inter- and transdisciplinary work is necessary to further understand the patient’s case, to be able to develop a comprehensive care plan and to maximize the limited resources available to the care team.

The Bridging Leadership Framework: Key to TDR Success
Understanding the complexities of doing transdisciplinary research, I am reminded of a leadership framework that I used to work on and have started to advocate – the Bridging Leadership Framework (BL)  – a theory on leadership and approach in attaining social objectives and outcomes. This framework was developed by the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) and was later used in practice by the Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF) in working with different local governments to bridge societal divides in public health specifically addressing maternal health. It is in ZFF that I got exposed with BL and espoused its concepts.

Leadership according to Pierce (2002) leadership is a relationship on influence that is multidirectional and non-coercive, both members and leaders are actively influencing one another. The BL framework builds on three central components on (1) ownership, (2) co-ownership, and (3) co-creation. I would revolve and refer to the BL Framework as one of the central leadership frameworks in connection with transdisciplinary research.  

Image result for bridging leadership framework
Image 1. The Bridging Leadership Framework

In essence, the challenges faced by TD teams are revolving around the three components of BL – owning the issue or challenge, having others (including other discipline) own the same issue, and to create meaningful new arrangements to respond to challenges. BL is about personal and collective responses, both of which are essential in ensuring TDR’s work.  

Ownership: Strong leadership braving the odds

One of the essential elements in TDR is finding a common ground for all the disciplines involved, grounding all concerns and re-directing them in one goal. To be able to solicit the support of different disciplines and stakeholders, one should be grounded on the issue or challenge at hand – this is ownership. 

Higginbotham et al. explained that one of the key ingredients in a TD team is having a strong leadership. In the language of BL, this is a classic example of Ownership. In Bridging Leadership, a strong leadership is based on a strong ownership of the issue where one can see a certain division in the society (perceived as a research problem from the researcher point-of-view) and makes a personal response (principal investigator initiates the research).

Huxham (2000) said that leaders on multiparty collaboration need to conceptualize or create mental models or mindsets for members to adhere to ensure that all concerned are working towards one direction. Young (2000) identified some personal leadership traits and tasks (eg. Visionary, strong, modest) that parallel those in project management (eg. Development of clear and focused objectives, sustaining drive to achieve deliverable and deadlines) and necessitate these in the success of the project or endeavor.

In conducting TDR, a deep sense of ownership especially by the principal investigator propels the entire team and motivates them in achieving the common goal despite differences in disciplines and interests. Apart from owning the issue, it is important to note that competency is as valued as integrity – meaning in TDR, competency in one’s specialized discipline is equal and necessary to ensure that the research maintain diverse perspectives by maintaining openness from and among team members.

Principal investigators of TDRs are transdisciplinary leaders that also need to employ skills in delivering processual tasks apart from attending to group dynamics ensuring that interactions among members from different disciplines are constructive and productive (LaBaron, 2003).

Co-Ownership:  Interweaving interests in common grounds

One of the keys to the success of any transdisciplinary research is the commitment to the TD process. This is evident when members of the team, despite their individual fields of expertise, acknowledged that their presence can contribute to the final outcome. In TDR, it is important to establish mutual recognition and importance of the specialized fields within the team while jointly establishing a unified recognition and respect to the overall goal of the research.

In dealing with complexities, co-ownership is vital. The principal investigator establishes a strong ownership to the research issue/agenda and should, in the process, be able to establish the same level of ownership among his or her peers from different disciplines.

In the Theory of Complexity, transdisciplinary researches were able to establish that certain small changes in behavior can lead to bigger institutional changes. Therefore, co-ownership in TDR requires both a strong sense of ownership from the leader and specific skill sets such as generating a common ground from multiple disciplines through effective dialogue skills. 

Principal investigators who act as leaders in TDRs have to establish a joint sense of ownership to achieve a common goal but would require collaborative efforts by working with other disciplines with patience, tolerance, openness, listening, and conflict resolution (Gray, Ren, & Susman, 2007). Principal investigators and leaders would require different disciplines to respond to a common problem. This would mean fostering a common language and finding meaning for every team members to appreciate and framing according to a unified model (Morgan et al., 2003). Therefore a key skill is for leaders to be able to effectively communicate and establish common grounds from members of different disciplines.

Co-Creation: Achieving societal breakthrough

In Bridging Leadership, a successful co-ownership of different stakeholders achieved through a multi-stakeholder process of consultation and generative dialogue would translate to new institutional arrangements which is called Co-creation. New institutional arrangements are innovations and breakthroughs that a TDR hopes to achieve but often times find difficult to do so.

Co-creation requires time for communities to develop and sustain. Transdisciplinary leaders have to employ TDRs to establish empirical data. In pursuing TDRs, researchers may and would involve the community to foster better co-ownership of the research agenda or issue at hand. Community participation is one way to ensure a larger co-ownership and eases the process of co-creating new arrangements and innovations.  The process of Co-Creation apart from developing new institutional arrangements must at the same time make current programs and services more responsive to the community.

In Complexity Theory, organizations encounter constant changes in structures, processes, and power-relations. To be more strategic in organizational development, communities are involved in TDRs through participatory action researches.

To be able to have a successful Community Action Research, it is important to dialogue closely with the community and to make them be involved in certain research processes. Involving the community is a good strategy for TD teams to tailor-fit interventions with the community working directly on it – making such interventions fitting to the community’s culture and identity.

However, in TDR and community action research, the community is not just involved in the research process but also need to co-own the research agenda and be able to co-create arrangements including a possible change in the current practices and or beliefs of the community. This would require the community more time to adapt the recommendations of the research work.

Transdisciplinary research is helpful in achieving a better perspective on addressing complexities in societies and communities and those who employ TDRs must be transdisciplinary leaders themselves to be able to fully appreciate and understand the rigor of this specific research process.

Not all results of TDRs may be accepting, however sensitive, to the community involved. This would mean that the TD team would need to involve the community not just as beneficiary of the research but as partners and co-implementers. 

Involvement of the community should be at the onset of the TDR. The sooner the community is involved in the research process, the easier for the TD team to solicit the community’s support, insights, and assistance. This would mean the TD team should be able to identify interventions and be able to have the community understand such so that the community will be able to adopt interventions which best suits their needs.

In the process of TDRs, the challenge of personal ownership takes place and usually the principal investigator has the heaviest ownership in the TD team. It is important for the principal investigator to be able to translate this deep sense of ownership into something comprehensible and that the other members of the research team would be able to relate and adapt. Members of the TDR should be able to have at least a similar sense of ownership with the principal investigator but maintaining their individual expertise working cohesively in the team.

Dialogue as often as possible with the TD team and the rest of the stakeholders would lessen misunderstanding and promote certain sense of openness. But to ensure that dialogue generates this kind of environment, transdisciplinary leaders would require specific skill sets in communication and stakeholder management.


Asian Institute of Management TeaM Energy Center for Bridging Leadership. n.d. Bridging leadership framework. Makati City, Philippines. (accessed September 24, 2014).

Higginbotham, N., Albrecht, G., & Connor, L. (2001). Health Social Science: A transdisciplinary and complexity perspective. Australia: Oxford University Press.

Huxham C, Vangen S. 2000. Leadership in the shaping and implementation of collaboration agendas: how things happen in a (not quite) joined up world. Acad Manage J. 2000;43(6):1159–75.

Gray, B., Ren, H., & Susman, G. (2007). Brokers’ roles as boundary spanners in knowledge-intensive teams. Pennsylvania State University, USA.

LaBaron, M. (2003). Bridging cultural conflict. Jossey-Bass; San Francisco, USA.

Morgan, G. D. et al. (2003). Facilitating transdisciplinary research: the experience of the transdisciplinary tobacco use research centers. USA.

Pierce, S. D. (2002). Bridging Differences and Building Collaboration: The Critical Role of Leadership. Retrieved from

Young K. (2000). Transdisciplinarity: recreating integrated knowledge. EOLSS Publishers Ltd; Oxford, UK.

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