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Career Advice

How to be an effective academic colleague

Nine tips for cultivating a valued skill.


I remember applying for academic positions and looking at the long list of criteria. All universities valued candidates who were effective colleagues. Surprisingly, there were few formal trainings on this skill. I talked to a diverse group of individuals in order to learn more about how I could be a more effective colleague. A theme which emerged was that effective colleagues understand how they relate to themselves and others. They make the workplace a positive environment for everyone. I would like to share what I have learned about how to be an effective colleague.

When I was a postdoctoral fellow, I asked a senior academic how I could improve my chances of successfully applying for the position of lecturer. He said that academia can be so competitive that universities sometimes hire individuals who can neutralize the tension between the colleagues. Irina Dumitrescu has even written two articles which give some examples of the kinds of difficult situations which academics can encounter in their interpersonal relationships with colleagues. She discusses how some scholars find colleagues who defend their own reputation and denigrate the reputation of other scholars as part of their quest to succeed.

Obviously, work environments differ from department to department and from university to university. For example, Grace Lavery comments that some universities have better work environments for members of underrepresented communities than others. The following is what I learned about being a more effective colleague who helps create a more positive environment for everyone. I preserved the anonymity of the individuals who shared this wisdom, whenever this was their preference.

  1. The longer you spend in an organization the better you know which individuals badmouth their colleagues at work. You will also have an idea about who is involved in playing office games and what kind of games they like playing. You will know about alliances. You may know which colleagues are using more junior staff members to further their agendas and to indirectly do that which they prefer not to do directly.When you see these behaviours refrain from doing something similar. Avoid partaking in or spreading negative gossip. Otherwise, you will only be worsening the problem. Try to be positive and helpful. This way you will contribute to lessening the negativity in the department and can create a better work environment for everyone.
  1. Do not allow yourself to be used as a pawn. There are many ways in which you can become a pawn. It boils down to individuals furthering their agenda by using you. For instance, colleagues may try to get you to do something which they prefer not to do directly themselves.
  1. Be polite and friendly to colleagues who are not nice to you. If you cannot be friendly, then at least treat colleagues neutrally. Do not take revenge on colleagues who treated you badly. This approach will prevent your relationship with that colleague from deteriorating. You will avoid being dragged into a vicious circle of tit for tat. Your relationship with that colleague may even stabilize or improve. Some may find this approach difficult because of the hurt they are experiencing. In such cases you can remind yourself an old folk wisdom that “what goes around, comes around.” I am not saying that you should not have boundaries. I am talking about using judgment and discretion when deciding how to respond.
  1. Identify what is within your power and what is not. Focus on what is within your power to change.
  1. Choose to be happy every day. Do not hinge your happiness on external events. Do not condition how you feel on what other people either do or do not do.
  1. Be kind to yourself and empathetic to others. Try to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Seek to understand first and then to be understood.
  1. Try to resolve disagreements amicably and with diplomacy. This does not mean that you do not set personal boundaries.
  1. See your mistakes as an opportunity for learning and growth.
  1. Engage in constant learning and in professional development. There are books on how to be more effective in organizations. There are also coaches who can help you to identify areas for improvement and how to grow as a professional.

Following these steps will not solve all the issues you may be dealing with. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, the relationship with someone does not get better. You will still encounter office games and negativity. However, in my experience, following these practices leads to having a more fulfilling time in academia. What has your experience been like in academia? What do you do in order to be an effective colleague? Please share your own experiences and tips in the comment section below.

Tetyana (Tanya) Krupiy is a lecturer in the faculty of law at Newcastle University.

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