Faculty Collegiality: Six Tips for Getting Along with Disagreeable Colleagues

Have you ever left a meeting in which you were trying to work with some colleagues on aligning the curriculum for a course that several of you teach, and decided that the best (printable) word to describe a colleague was “difficult?”

Recently, when talking with another professor about challenging students, we noticed some similarities between some of the student behaviors we were discussing and some behaviors we had observed in colleagues over the years.

Like kids, some professors may not always be a delight to be around, are impulsive, and have difficulty delaying having their needs met. Others behave like the school bully, have tantrums, and can be cruel when angry. A third group may exhibit excuse-making and avoidant behaviors, and seldom complete work in a timely manner. They tend to be off-task, late to meetings, unprepared, or forgetful of the meeting’s agenda.
Aligning course curriculum or collaborating over a new instructional initiative becomes even more difficult when you enter the meeting and see “that person” is there, and you immediately become tense. Here are several tips you can try.

1. Stop the name-calling. The more you think of the person in terms of a negative label, the more you’ll observe behaviors that confirm your negative characterization of the individual. You may become less annoyed and more compassionate toward the individual if you “think differently” about him or her.

2. Use rational detachment. You can’t control what words come out of another’s mouth, but you can control how you respond to the comments. Don’t reinforce that behavior by giving them the reaction they’re seeking. Remain rationally detached from the situation as though you are a third party observing the meeting.

3. Use cognitive restructuring. Since your colleagues have had a number of years to become the way they are, it’s unlikely you will effect a huge change in their behaviors. Instead, you will have to change your responses to their behaviors. If you tell yourself that your colleagues truly believe that their proposals are motivated by what’s best for students, you may listen more attentively to find the jewel behind the suggestion. In contrast, if you walk into the meeting saying that it will be a waste of your valuable time, you probably won’t be disappointed.

4. Choose your battles. You can decide during each and every interaction whether the issue is important enough to go to battle over at this very moment—or at all. Sometimes we find ourselves getting stuck in an interaction that later we can recognize was really trivial.

5. Smile and laugh. It’s amazing how a “group laugh” will help you move past some difficult sticking spot in your curriculum negotiations. When the drama becomes too overpowering and you seem to be losing perspective, lighten up!

6. Celebrate your successes. When you have a successful meeting or interaction, acknowledge it, and use it as an opportunity to build some positive relations to help out when the next difficult situation occurs.

Navigating rough waters with colleagues will give our students the best faculty and programs they deserve. The interpersonal skills you refine will make the working environment more pleasant for everyone. The only person you can truly control is yourself; so take charge.

Jacqueline Waggoner is an assistant professor of education at the University of Portland.

Excerpted from When Colleagues Are Brats, Academic Leader, August 2005.