The importance of collegiality in academia (opinion)

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An important element of most jobs is commonly described as collegiality, which refers to the way coworkers interact with each other. Sometimes these interactions involve socialization, but they often have a work-related component. Being seen as a good colleague can make the difference in promotion and salary decisions and, therefore, have a major impact on a career.

But many people don’t understand why collegiality is so valued by organizations, and have no idea how to become better colleagues themselves. Some don’t even pretend they’re trying to be a good colleague.

In academia and elsewhere, many people would benefit tremendously if they learned how to become better colleagues. But what does it mean to be a good colleague? Is collaboration just another way to suck off the boss? Why do higher education institutions place so much importance on collaboration? How can a person improve their collegiality and become a more valuable member of their college or university?

My definition of a good colleague is someone who adds value to an organization in a way that goes beyond the specified demands of their job. For example, in an academic setting, each professor is expected to teach a certain number of courses and is expected – at least in research-oriented universities – to regularly produce top-notch research. But just as important to the proper functioning of a college or university are many other tasks which are not explicitly stated. These tasks include developing programs, supervising student research and helping other professors improve theirs, actively participating in research seminars, advising student clubs and interacting with students. the world outside the institution.

The value of these non-contractual services provided by the collaboration is high enough that organizations reward the people who provide them. In colleges and universities, if tenure cases are close, collaboration can make the difference between a person getting tenure or not. There are many aspects of almost all jobs that are not specified in job descriptions but need to be done. Even if an institution does not explicitly state that it will be a factor taken into account in performance appraisal, collegiality is almost always important and has a significant effect on promotion and salary decisions.

Collegiality vs office politics

Often, however, when an institution rewards someone for their collegiality, people misinterpret it as “office politics”. In a stereotypical example of office politics, an employee hangs out with older people, laughs at their jokes, agrees with whatever they say, and does whatever older people want. Eventually, that person becomes a favorite and is promoted for that reason. This pattern of behavior is observed in many contexts and often contributes to undeserved rewards.

Collegiality, however, is distinct from office politics, at least using the definitions of each that I just mentioned. Being collegial means cooperating and helping informally. When people are collegial, the office works better and everyone is better off. In contrast, the term “office politics” generally refers to the use of informal relationships to make progress, most often to the detriment of others. It creates resentment and dysfunction. Collegiality is productive, while office politics are destructive.

The distinction between collegiality and office politics is complicated by the social aspect of each. Collegiality and office politics often come through socialization, such as going to lunch together or meeting outside of work. Conversations in these contexts can be productive – many research ideas and discussions of everyday issues that arise are brought up in informal discussions. But such socialization can also be used to gain favor with superiors.

Become a good colleague

The best way to think about collegiality is to focus not on how you interact, but on the value the person adds when they do. While many people interact through socialization, it is possible to be a great colleague in other ways. One of my all-time favorite former coworkers has never gone to lunch, never met anyone off campus, hardly ever did unprofessional things with anyone from college. But every time someone wrote a new research paper, they would receive a copy a few days later in their mailbox with their handwriting on it, with detailed and very helpful suggestions. For me and the other recipients, these suggestions were pure gold and they significantly improved our research.

Each of us would benefit from an effort to become a better colleague. If we did, our institutions would work better and they would appreciate and reward what we have done. Equally important, we would probably appreciate our work more. But how do you go about becoming a better colleague?

The thing to remember to be a good colleague is that everything is completely voluntary. You can choose what you want to do in terms of collaboration. Often a good place to start is going to lunch with your colleagues and engaging in productive discussions about the issues the group is facing. A surprising number of important decisions are made at the table.

But some people don’t like having lunch. Or they don’t like to hear their colleagues talk endlessly about the local sports team – or, worse yet, listen to strongly argued political views they disagree with. If that’s you, skip lunch. But find another way to contribute productively.

You can do a variety of things. You can be like my former colleague and provide detailed feedback on the work of others. A couple I know well teach in law school, are excellent chefs, and make a point of inviting all their new colleagues to dinner every year. Recently, there has been a movement among senior women professors to help younger women overcome the potential pitfalls inherent in the too often sexist university culture. All colleges and universities always have committees that need help, students who need guidance, alumni who would like to have a relationship with their alma mater and many other valuable tasks that are not described in the job description of a faculty member. You can always find things that you love to do that significantly contribute to your surroundings.

In an academic environment, it is especially important to contribute things that relate to problematic aspects of academic culture. Contributing to the improvement of these issues is the hallmark of an exceptional colleague. These problematic aspects are many, but let me highlight a few.

First, there is too often a nastiness in academic interactions that can shock those outside the system. This nastiness is present when we are rude at seminars or faculty meetings, discuss each other at conferences in an insulting or condescending manner, or treat each other unprofessionally at other times. When people in the corporate world accept higher education jobs, they are often amazed at the way academics act. Academics love to talk about their purity compared to the rest of the world, but the truth is, we engage in more than our fair share of selfish, backstabbing behavior.

Second, academia is extremely hierarchical. Full teachers are treated very well. But many courses, especially at large state universities, are taught by non-tenured professors and adjunct professors, who have high teaching loads and low pay. And the staff almost always work extremely hard and are underpaid for what they could make in the for-profit sector. Although we have no control over compensation, we do have control over how people are treated. A good colleague should ensure that everyone on their campus receives the respect they deserve. For example, at the end of each year, one of my colleagues takes the lead and organizes a fundraiser for a staff vacation fund. Everyone is happy to contribute, but without the initiative of this colleague many of us would forget about the staff at a time when we are all very busy. By this simple gesture, this colleague makes an important contribution to the well-being of the department.

Third, despite being strongholds of liberalism, colleges and universities still have far too much sexism and racism. Women and minorities are under-represented and treated relatively poorly in many aspects of their working life. All faculty members, especially us white men, must work hard to make our institutions places where all races and genders are welcome and valued.

To be a good colleague, you need to find a productive way to contribute that goes beyond your straightforward job description. Doing so will benefit your colleagues and the organization you work for. But just as important, you will benefit from it. Your colleagues will like you more, your assessments will improve, and you will likely appreciate your profession more.


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