Beki Grinter

Collegiality in the Workplace

In academia, academic management, computer science, discipline, empirical, research on February 1, 2012 at 10:43 am

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with someone who is seeking a faculty position. He’d received a lot of advice, and in a moment of potentially regretting unsolicited advice, I suggested another thing to look for: collegiality among the faculty.

The benefits of collegiality in the workplace are pretty obvious. I’ve been lucky I’ve worked in three places where my co-workers friendliness was central to my experience. In Illinois I was far away from everyone I knew (either in California or England) and I was lonely at times. My Bell Labs colleagues helped me through those times. At Xerox PARC, the Computer Science Lab used to eat lunch together at a big table in the middle of the lab. Laughter ruled as we shared stories about a myriad of entertaining events and situations in our lives. And that friendliness, I am convinced, lowered barriers to collaboration.

In academia, a sign of collegiality in the workplace can be collaborations. But, I don’t think it’s nearly as good an indicator as it might be in industrial labs. Jointly supervising a student is also a good way to collaborate, in fact, since the work of Ph.D.s is a significant percentage of the research work that goes on in a University. But, since many students are supervised by a single faculty member it can look like a less collaborative environment.

But the collaboration and collegiality matters because of the service work I would argue. Imagine an environment where a significant percentage of the workforce changed each year. New people were interviewed and admitted, while others left for new employment. We call these people students, and that’s precisely what they do. That’s one source of significant work. Others involve evaluating the students who are staying, whether it be an annual performance review or through exams. And thats not even started on the work associated with faculty careers. Or, the work associated with acting on our obligations to the University and to those who rank/rate/assess the University and give us the ability to continue to teach. The volume of service work in a highly dynamic environment is significant.

How to get it done? With everyone pulling together to take their share. I think that’s a reason that collegiality matters.

But there’s more to it than that. Once many years ago I went on a faculty job interview at a very prestigious University (that I will not name). The faculty seemed very demoralized. Eventually I ended up in someone’s office. A very senior person whose work I was familiar with and was excited to meet. So, when he started crying I really did not know what to do. I did finally get an understanding of the reason for the demoralization. There was a very tense situation among a number of the most senior faculty. Meetings were shouting and screaming matches with the people involved dredging up scores to be settled from multiple decades. It was a poisonous situation I learnt as I handed this person the tissues I’d brought on my interview. Not only could those people never be together, everyone else tried to avoid them and any meetings that they would be associated with.

And nothing worked as a consequence. Academia is a highly consensus driven environment particularly among the faculty. It’s hard to make decisions without involving the faculty. So, meetings have a very important role in moving the environment forward. And in their absence, while decisions needed to be made, made without people together, those decisions were like adding tinder to the flames (because people assumed that others were making the decisions in a way that screwed them over).

I didn’t understand then all the implications of this poisonous environment, but listening to this very senior person explain the situation through tears made me wonder how junior faculty could succeed. Frankly how anyone could succeed. And it also made me realize that no-one had any pride in the department. No energy to promote each other’s accomplishments, to be excited about what they could do individually and collectively. They didn’t even think of themselves as a department anymore.

I did not take the job. I did learn the value of collegiality and the damage that a lack of it can do to an environment. This was a particularly bad version of it, of course. But something else happened on that same interview. I met one of the sources of the troubles. In our interview he had a lot to complain about, including the numbers of foreign students being admitted into the department. Of course, my F-1 foreign student visa was stamped inside the passport that I had (for some reason) brought to the interview. I felt insulted. Now that I look back on it, I see that as being another piece of the problem, a dysfunctional environment can turn people off before they even get there.

So, collegiality matters, even if its not manifest in collaborations because it’s central to how the decision-making and workload is balanced in the academic environment. It’s also crucial for building a sense of pride in and excitement about a place. And the work of research is hard enough that without feeling excited about your own and your colleague’s accomplishments I really don’t know how you’d get up in the morning.

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  1. Like this a lot. This issue is way under valued.

    dick

  2. I completely agree with this. I have previously worked in a job where the relationship among the various researchers was toxic. Where there is little collegiality, decisions get made based on who can score points against home, not what is best for the program. I feel really lucky to work in a department which has a huge interdisciplinary range but which is collegial, and I learn a ton from my colleagues who have different points of view.

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