Tuesday, 6 February 2018

What makes a good colleague? (Tseen Khoo)

Photo by Andre Freitas | unsplash.com
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.

This post examines what makes a good colleague.

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.

For now, here's what I wanted to focus on: 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 recently, 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?".

A version of this post first appeared on The Research Whisperer in May 2016. 

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