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What makes a good colleague in academia?

What makes a good colleague in academia?

Responding to this post by Tseen Khoo:

When I read in Tseen’s blog post that the concept of being a ‘good team worker’ gets a bad reaction because of its association with HR buzzwords, I knew I was on to something. This post is responding directly to the post that Tseen wrote about being a good co-worker.

In my humble opinion, a ‘good’ co-worker varies wildly depending on the personalities of the team, and the work required by the organisation. A quiet, keep-your-head-down diligent person is great in an office and a nightmare in fast food. In contrast, a loud, social butterfly that’s fast on their feet and in a constant flurry of activity is a godsend behind the counter at McDonald’s, but a headache in a shared office space.

So…I guess it depends. Am I a good co-worker?

At my university I get the distinct impression that I’m not well-liked. Not because I’m rude or offensive, but because I work remotely and enjoy doing so. I defend my liberties, tooth and nail. Admin is always terse when interacting with me, professors give me a momentary squint when I introduce myself as a PhD student in their department, and other commerce researchers take a moment to mask their surprise when I suddenly breeze into the office after months of absence. There’s the common interrogation of “Who are you, and should I be suspicious that we haven’t met before,“ in addition to the underlying assumption that I’m a ‘bad student’ like all the undergraduates that don’t show up to class.

Once I’m at work, however, it’s a different story. Whether I’m in the office typing away, or in the hospital flexing my capacity as a commerce researcher, I’m like a duck in a beautiful pond. It’s natural, I fit in seamlessly, and I don’t give my surroundings a second thought. I’m one of those bubbly personalities that greets everyone I walk past in the morning and asks follow-up questions if I’m passing an acquaintance. I wander in and out of the tea room, and the library, as I mull over things to write about. I’m always ready for a conversation unless I have that slightly stressed look in my eye – and have the capacity to meet most of my department’s unfamiliar scrutiny with an easy-going smile. I’m approachable, flexible, and knowledgeable – I would say that makes me good to work with.

I wasn’t always like this but it’s safe to say I’m glad I grew thick skin.

The backstory
When I first started as a commerce student I was nervous, somewhat hyperactive, and desperate to please. I’d hang on to every word that a more experienced employee said to me and always took it to heart. Criticism or scrutiny on whether I belonged hit hard and could devastate my entire week. The looks I currently receive from Admin and other academics would have rattled my confidence if I had been but three years younger. I would have been a combination of anxiously hiding from everyone in my office, and desperately seeking social connections in the tea room. Younger me wanted badly to ‘be part of a team,’ and to be valued for what I could bring. Occasionally that desperation was abused and ill-fostered, which inevitably taught me not to be such a doormat.

Through a litany of experience as an intern, a temp, and a full-time employee, I have learned what’s worth worrying over. There are always going to be people who don’t like what I bring to the table. Tough cookies, folks.

The current situation
There are always going to be people who don’t want to be greeted first thing in the morning, and there are always going to be people who don’t communicate well in the workplace. People who mean to be supportive, but say precisely the wrong thing. There are going to be people who avoid you just because it’s their style to work independently, and there are going to be people who desire to micromanage everything you do under the guise of ‘team work.’

There are many resources on how to manage difficult people, even if your concept of ‘difficult’ is just a working personality that clashes with yours.

Finding a balance and where you are comfortable as a person is what I think makes someone a good co-worker. Someone who knows how they like to work and design their space around that knowledge.

I know I can be loud, and hold many conversations over the phone – so I step out of the shared office to conduct those activities. I also know some of my peers work best in total silence, door shut, and without human interaction for 4 hours straight. I respect that, and we give each other the distance we need. Knowing these differences is the key to working in a friendly office free from passive-aggression and furtive side-eye.

Being a good co-worker in academia
Academia is a fun blend of team projects with heavily independent stages. “I’ll do this, then go away, and I’ll come back next week for you to review what I’ve done” is a common set-up. This stems from the fact that knowledge work requires unique perspectives that only one person can contribute at a time, and totally focus while the contribution is made.

It’s not the sort of work that can occur in a board room with five people sitting around one table – it takes weeks of back-and-forth and carefully-worded emails outlining the changes made to a developing document.

Thus, being a ‘good’ co-worker in this set up often requires a degree of adaptability. Being able to be autonomous, but collaborative. Being able to speak up in a team meeting, and problem-solve when on your own. It requires a small amount of peer mediation when different personality types, and a large pinch of salt for when things are misunderstood. It requires stress management, time management, and understanding that different people work at different paces. It means being accessible via phone or email, being willing to occasionally meet in a group to communicate large amounts of information, and absorbing “what’s new” constantly.

Am I all of these things? Not yet, but I’m learning fast. Do I believe that being a good colleague goes beyond a skill set and into a personality ‘fit’ with the work place? Of course! But whether I find myself in an ideal world or not, I know that I can spot someone I enjoy working alongside very quickly.

Madeleine Kendrick (@MIKendrick94) is a PhD candidate (Scholarship Recipient, Full-time), an Academic Research Assistant, and a Business Consultant. This story was published on May 14, 2018, on Madeleine’s blog, Research & Beyond (available here), and has been republished here with her permission.

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