What makes a good colleague?

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Photo by Tseen Khoo

Many people lament the growing scarcity of collegiality in our working lives. Many declare, in varying shades of purple prose, that it has been sacrificed on the altar of economic rationalism and for the missions of our managerial universities.

Research stars and groups get imported into institutions, often breeding resentment and discomfort from those who are already there.

Scholars who are already excelling gain more for their work; those who aren’t considered as such do not, and often find themselves without support to increase their research capacity.

Despite the rhetoric about collaboration and partnerships, the imperatives for outputs lead many to declare that collegiality and scholarly citizenship are under threat. This seems particularly true when people minimise any commitments that don’t directly produce outputs.

The oil that smooths the machine of scholarship is not only what people write, analyse, and publish. It’s not only presenting at conferences or supervising a higher degree student. Most of all, it’s not what promotions people have had or grants they’ve won.

There is a whole raft of intangible, essential, labour-intensive work that goes into a healthy research ecosystem. In an almost-metrics way, this work includes being a good critical friend to colleagues and students, especially those who aren’t directly in your area; reviewing for grants, book manuscripts, and papers; convening events that set the stage for a field or cohort to develop and progress; mentoring someone without having to… the list goes on.

At a totally non-metrics level, this kind of work encompasses supporting each other and providing encouragement, the social work of building connections between groups and individuals, being good communicators, and that most difficult element of bringing people together because they want to be together. This is the invisible (often feminised) labour of any workplace.

Giedre Kligyte and Simon Barrie argue that academics cling to an “unattainable collegial ideal situated in binary opposition to management” that “ultimately disguises the contingent character of this relationship and prevents both leaders and academics from imagining alternatives” (2014, p. 166). Kligyte and Barrie’s article (PDF available on UNSW repository – thanks, @giedre!) is thought-provoking, and forced Lacan upon me. I forgave them this because the paper made me think about the persistence of positing a halcyon past against which our increasingly soulless present is juxtaposed. This happens a lot in criticisms of neoliberal universities, and I’ve done my share of ranting about the invocation of a mythical golden age at universities. But that is indeed a whole other post.

Here’s what I wanted to focus on for this one: Let’s talk about what makes a good colleague. Not a utopian colleague. A good everyday colleague. 

An article about “How to be a likeable colleague” floated past my radar the other week, and I was reading it and guffawing at some items like “Do be a team player”. Somehow, ‘team player’ and university don’t seem to go together. 

As we well know, there’s often no ‘team’ in academe (cf. herding cats). 

In saying this, though, I’m not saying there isn’t collaboration and a helluva lot of working together, just that the use of the term ‘team player’ often signals a jaunt into hideous knee-jerk management cliches. A lot of the time, it means that you’re being told to put up or shut up because conflict undermines what the group aim is meant to be. The fact that the group aim may be misguided, irrelevant, or kind of stupid seems to be by-the-by.

You may have gathered by now that I’m not a good ‘team player’ in many respects. I also don’t think that the most likeable colleague is necessarily a good colleague.

Here are some ways I’m a good colleague: I usually work well with people and know how to get things done in the weirdly political and intensely hierarchical world of universities. I make (and keep) work friends; I’ll always make time for those I like. I can be highly sociable and do my share of small-talk when I have to. I pitch in with my colleagues when things get hectic. I’m happy to take the lead, or step back, as long as there’s a balance. I share stuff.

Here are some ways that I could be considered a bad colleague: I hate work tea-rooms and tend to stay away from them, so don’t do a lot of incidental socialising. I hate being insincere so if I don’t actually like someone (and don’t have to work with them directly), I’ll just avoid them. I’m happy to stay in my office and just do my work – I can go a whole day without interacting with another person and be perfectly happy. In a similar vein, I don’t say ‘hi’ and ‘bye’ to everyone, every day.

The kind of person you consider a good colleague may be vastly different from mine. I could be your worst nightmare, or a dream, depending on what you value and how you judge.

I once heard a senior researcher talk about her experiences with recruiting new staff and that what it boiled down to, impressive CVs aside, was whether she thought that person would be a good colleague. In her case, she meant someone who was willing to pitch in when needed, and not only be out for themselves and looking to their next promotion. I’ve heard another Head of School talk about wanting to hire someone who would fit in with the culture of that particular school. While I get a little wary about people judging on whether they think someone will fit in (because, y’know, culture / difference / bias are my scholarly bread and butter), I understand the need for people to feel they are gaining a good colleague – and not just a research superstar (or similar).

When I first started writing this post, I thought I’d be able to offer a few wise insights about collegiality and being a good colleague. Instead, it has made me question my assumptions about what these components might mean, and left me wanting to ask others the question, “What makes a good colleague?”.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer based in Melbourne, Australia. She convenes the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), is often on Twitter (@tseenster) and co-founded the Research Whisperer (theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com) with Jonathan O'Donnell.

10 Responses to What makes a good colleague?

  1. I see a good team player as someone who when you make a reasonable request gets on with the job rather than complaining about why they can’t do it or just ignores you.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Agree, David, and I do find the sullen “it’s not my job” response (see Sarah’s comment below) very irritating, too. That said, I recognise that people shouldn’t be doing other people’s jobs, but there are ways to flag that the person should be talking to someone else without taking it as a personal slight.

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  2. Sarah says:

    It’s an interesting topic. I’m a Go8 professional staff member working in one of the more ‘friendly’ faculties and I’ve always valued in others (and tried to embody myself) the ability to do one’s job cheerfully, to offer to assist others when they need it and to go above and beyond in one’s role because it will help someone else. However, I’ve really noticed in the last year or so my colleagues, both within my own team and other professional staff teams, doing this less and the emergence of a culture that is really unhelpful – an ‘it’s not my job’ attitude. I wonder if this is because of the pressure to meet increasingly unrealistic targets. Thanks for the links to the articles.

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    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for your observations, Sarah. I think you’re right about the increasing pressures.

      I work at an institution that has undergone huge change (read: restructure + re-restructure) over the last few years and this kind of pressure does generate a feeling of doing only what you can while trying to find your feet in a changing context.

      I keep hearing advice – often given to emerging researchers – that they should be “smart” about how they use their time. Unfortunately, what they are often advised against doing is the crucial good citizenship stuff that may not result in direct outputs. It’s as if they don’t see themselves as part of a broader system of give and take – a community.

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  3. @AnthCondon says:

    A good colleague is someone who knows how to do their dishes and take their stuff out of the fridge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Twitter peeps would also add: Bring cake and/or donuts and make coffee. Sounds like having house-trained and sharing people around can only be a good thing.

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  4. 1) Does their marking on time so you can put a course to bed
    2) Isn’t rule-bound, sometimes a little common sense goes a long way
    3) Doesn’t ask for freebies – no I don’t want to help you organise that conference that has nothing to do with me
    4) Doesn’t try and palm students off on other staff.
    5) Never uses the word “team player”
    6) Never uses the word team unless referring to sports

    Liked by 1 person

  5. samradhnijog says:

    Reblogged this on Passionate about my PhD and commented:
    Well said! #phdforum #phdchat #phdsudent.

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  6. It is all a matter of respect and understanding the different personalities and how to approach the collegues you work with

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Marion says:

    A good colleague is someone you could chat up and would reply within the day at least. Sometimes us in the academe just need social interaction without having to exert effort into committing to a lunch or coffee date.

    Liked by 1 person

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