|Photo: Siansa National Concert Hall Dublin|
“What do you call a co-worker these days? Neither teammate nor confederate will do, and partner is too legalistic. The answer brought from academia to the political world by Henry Kissinger and now bandied in the boardroom is colleague. It has a nice upper-egalitarian feel, related to the good fellowship of collegial.”
A new exploration in the world of work and worklife is emerging: the discipline and skill set of colleagueship. Starting at the university level, Michael Fischer wrote an impassioned piece in Inside Higher Education (April 30, 2009) on why colleagueship is important--in fact essential--to the rewards of teaching and research. In his article, ”Defending Collegiality,” Fischer explains the value and essence of the collegial life, noting that this is in many respects what makes college teaching careers so worthwhile. Especially in academe, educators enjoy a “remarkable autonomy,” as distinguished from other kinds of work where people are considered employees rather than professionals. But the social backdrop for this autonomy, rather than the boss-peer dyad, is the flatter dynamic of peer-to-peer empowerment.
Even deans and department heads, the boss level in higher education, are considered colleagues first and bosses second. In his book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), Robert I. Sutton details the extensive morale damage that can be done when power-personality-driven faculty or executive staff decide to treat colleagues like despised hirelings rather than respected fellow professionals.
This innovative focus on the relations among professionals has been insightful in looking critically as a cultural analyst at a couple of leading professional schools: one in the arts and one in music. The mandate was to design in-service seminars to teach the basics of what is being called Cultural Competence. CultComp has become a requirement across colleges and universities intended to reflect and magnify their diversity profile, leaning toward students. Such training serves to raise awareness and appreciation in order to improve communications to bridge language, value, belies, and ethnic differences.
At both highly selective institutions, rather than researching their student identity brand at the Student Life level (the customary approach), my team determined that their selective student body was like the theory that informs Marine Corps recruiting: that recruits are born with the special aptitudes that make a Marine and then they find the Corps. In the same way, students at highly selective institutions are born rather than made, deliberately rare and different from the ordinary in dedication to their métiers. These academies, like the Marines, are looking for a few, not the many, very good students.
Also like the Marine Corps, specialized institutions are turning out graduates who will work in the same field, as friends, colleagues, and competitors – often over an entire career – and it is collegiality that makes that possible. As basic training, Cultural Competence makes crossing all sorts of borders the bridging tool.
So rather than design Cultural Competence courses at the expected level of undergrad through senior, I recommended developing the “expert student” concept on a higher track – that of professional development. Even at the entry level, these elite trainees are already performing at the expert level, expecting to continue along the fast track into their graduate and post-graduate careers. From there to take their places in the front ranks of the arts, both visual and performance-based.
The needed cultural learning bridge isn’t student life skills (study, time management, club activity, athletics) but the startup toolkit of a working professional, including agency (self-management), career management, competition strategy, teamwork, and long-term tactics for understanding the needs of colleagues and mentors alike. Asking and answering lifelong questions along the career path within the studio or classroom takes the broader vision of student life as a career already well-launched.
|Photo: CalArts: U.S. News and World Report|
Collegial life is increasingly militated against by scarcer public resources, the alienation of faculty from their schools and each other by the pressures of squeezed budgets and time-scarce schedules, a buyer’s job market, increasingly fragmented adjunct and part-time “piecework,” and amidst growing pressure to publish and perform, increasing introversion and disengagement—all tending to community disintegration. And there is increasing need to create engagement and networking designed for independent scholars and freelance professionals, including still-active retirees, who labor in isolation or project by project or course by course.
Overall, the skills of colleagueship can be ranked as basic social skills, which are not taught explicitly but picked up and practiced as group norms or far more rarely, by leadership example. In collapsing-hive cultures, however, where norms have gradually sunk to abysmal, collegial relations can deteriorate so severely that the only solution is a complete escape and a fresh start in a better-kept hive. But community disintegration is definitely one of the least-desired concomitant outcomes of the breakdown of social mores among professionals in any field. Negative interactions, at the micro level, exert five times the effect on mood and morale than positive ones, a finding often cited to show the high importance of supportive environments of compassion over those of distrust and intimidation.
To address these pressures, colleagueship is poised to become the mainstay skill of any successful career as well as school or department. It is not graded per se as a skill area for promotion and tenure (as are research (creative activity), teaching, and service. Yet the human relations demands of the professions, from the arts to music to medicine and the law, are based on their increasingly collaborative nature, within and across disciplines—especially in closely concerted enterprises such as studios, stage, R&D labs, and orchestras. In these sophisticated venues, understanding how to approach, analyze, and resolve the inherent conflicts of highly competent people working within the paradox of closely competitive as well as cooperative conditions—including issues of gender, religion, politics, class, ethnicity, nationality, personality, opportunity, and styles—is all activity seasoned professionals do intuitively. That skill is why they are seasoned and therefore successful. Sensing and solving for conflicts and avoiding confrontation is just a part of “expert system” thinking by pro collaborators, which operates consistently and without overdue conscious deliberation.
Making that expert system visible and conscious by analytical exploration and explanation can reveal the principles of diversity, self-awareness, and negotiation involved. What is called for are ways to codify what expert colleagues do naturally as part of a process of knowledge transfer for the upcoming generation (and Millennials reputedly do this, so far, poorly). Treating collegiality as a skillset, as an art and a practice essential to the profession itself, can open out to understanding how differences operate to support and further creative effort and environments.