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Building and Maintaining Positive Professional Relationships

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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In this chapter we provide suggestions and strategies for how to think about and nurture positive professional relationships.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, gives some great tips on developing and maintaining positive professional relationships.  It is from Chapter 4 – Building and Maintaining Positive Professional Relationships, in the book, Shaping Your Career: A Guide for Early Career Faculty, byDon Haviland, Anna M. Ortiz, and Laura Henriques . Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC 22883 Quicksilver Drive Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. © 2017 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis




Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

---------- 3,280 words ----------

Building and Maintaining Positive Professional Relationships


Positive professional relationships are central to a fulfilling faculty career. While faculty work many often seem like a solo enterprise, we get ideas, learn, and achieve goals through the relationships we develop. In summarizing literature on faculty professional relationships, O’Meara and colleagues (2008) note that the ability to have strong relationships with both students and colleagues makes a difference in job satisfaction, including, bolstering fulfillment with teaching, supporting scholarship, and providing access to allies. Neumann (2006) found that ideas for inquiry often emerged through conversations in the classroom and with colleagues. Moreover, our relationships shape our professional reputation. For example, over time our reputation as a teacher precedes us (to our benefit or detriment) with new groups of students; the same is true with our reputation for follow-through on projects or the respect we show our colleagues. Tending to your professional relationships is a key component of your faculty career and your ultimate success. 

In this chapter we provide suggestions and strategies for how to think about and nurture positive professional relationships. Your professional relationships extend beyond your faculty colleagues and students to include campus administrators and staff as well as colleagues at other institutions. We provide comments and tips for working with each of these groups. However, before we do, we want to begin the chapter by discussing what can be a rather ill-defined and amorphous concept: collegiality.


You have probably heard the term collegiality, a word used in higher education quite frequently and often described as the central feature of faculty life (Bess, 1992). The concept of collegiality is seen by some as so important, in fact, that there have been debates about whether it should be formalized as the fourth criteria for tenure (AAUP, 2016; Connell & Savage, 2001; Flaherty, 2013; Schmidt, 2013; Strippling, 2010). 

Collegiality as a term has not necessarily been well-defined. While we often understand it as more or less “being nice” to each other, the term has far richer meaning (Haviland, Alleman, & Cliburn Allen, 2017). Bess (1992) has offered a multilayered definition of collegiality, which is beyond our scope here. For our purposes, we note that collegiality confers both rights (to have your voice heard, to influence decisions) as well as responsibilities (to support a common purpose, to act in good faith and trust that others are doing the same, to support others without expectation of immediate reciprocity, to share concerns appropriately; Haviland et al., 2017). Collegiality might be thought of as a sense of professional trust and respect that translates into supportive behaviors that facilitate pursuit of shared goals within a department, a school or college, or a university. 

In this sense, collegiality is the cornerstone of a central value in faculty life: working together to advance the academic enterprise. Faculty engagement in making decisions about the academic programs of the department or university is critical, as is faculty participation in larger areas of shared governance (such as budget oversight). When fully realized, collegiality greases these wheels, leading faculty to engage in honest debate based on trust, to act in the collective (rather than self-) interest, and to commit to the greater good. Collegiality is also a value that encourages us to support and look out for the interests of our individual colleagues, and while this sentiment can be valuable for each faculty member, O’Meara and colleagues (2008) have noted that women faculty especially value collegiality. 

Collegiality has a central role in faculty life, facilitating academic governance and playing a role in how much of the institutional work gets done. To be perfectly frank, whether collegiality is a formal part of the tenure process or not, being respected and trusted, being seen as someone with integrity, and being liked by your colleagues does in fact make a difference in the decision. We see it happen. 

While often applied only to faculty, here we apply the collegiality concept even more broadly to guide our interactions with staff and administrators on a campus. Given the complexity of today’s university, through collegiality more broadly understood we can accomplish our individual and shared goals. A department, a college, and a university are all communal work-places, and success in those environments means building relationships; acting with respect, trust, and integrity; and recognizing a larger shared purpose. 

Inset 4.1. Words From Early Career Faculty: Missing Collegial Relationships

I just don’t have anybody here to reflect ideas off of in the same kind of way. If something’s turning in my head, I can’t just walk down the hallway and talk to whoever I see. – James 

[In grad school] I used to go down the hallway … and have tea with one of my colleagues. We would chat for 15 minutes and then go. That is something I really miss, especially coming out of grad school, that kind of connection to other people. – Sarah 

Relationships with Faculty Colleagues

Relationships with faculty colleagues can be a source of anxiety and frustration for early career faculty members. We often arrive right out of graduate school and expect to find a community like that of which we were a part: a scholarly community with long conversations with colleagues on issues big and small and colloquia on a range of topics. What we often find, however, are faculty members who teach multiple classes, serve on committees, juggle family commitments, and try to squeeze out time for scholarship. Rather than coming in with other doctoral students, we might find we are the only new faculty member in the department or that we have relatively little day-to-day contact with our colleagues. James and Sarah both speak to this isolation in Inset 4.1. 

No surprise, then, that early career faculty repeatedly report their surprise and even dismay at the isolation they find as they step into their position (Austin & Rice, 1998; Bogler & Kremer-Hayon, 1999; Gravett & Petersen, 2007; Trower, 2010). (These feelings of loneliness are often compounded by the fact that we have moved to a new area for our job and lack social connections as well. Inset 4.2 offers some tips for connecting in your new community.)  Seeking engagement with faculty colleagues, early career faculty frequently report missing a sense of community, being shocked at the individualized and competitive nature of faculty life, and being surprised by the time it took to feel like part of the community (Austin & Rice, 1998; Bogler & Kremer-Hayon, 1999; Gravett & Petersen, 2007). Often, professional interaction with their tenured colleagues leaves pretenure faculty least satisfied (Trower, 2010). 

We share this information not to discourage you, but rather for two reasons. First, we want to normalize the fact that early career faculty often feel lonely and isolated when they step into their roles. Second, we want to assure that you can take steps to change the situation. 

Inset 4.2. Strategies for Success: Becoming Part of a New Community

Use the following strategies to get connected socially when you move to a new area: 

-       Volunteer.

-       Find a gym, yoga studio, or other space for physical health. 

-       Seek out a church, synagogue, mosque, or other spiritual center. 

-       Use to find interest groups you might want to join. 

With that in mind, here are tips and suggestions both for how to be a good colleague and how to build healthy relationships with your faculty colleagues: 

-       Reach out to your colleagues. Early career faculty often look to senior faculty and administrators to reach out to them (Cawyer & Friedrich, 1998). While this hope is not unreasonable, the reality is that reaching out does not always happen as we might like. This does not mean those administrators and senior faculty are not open to building relationships with you; they might just need you to take the lead. So, drop by someone’s office for a chat or take that person to coffee to learn about his work and to share yours.  

-       Be present at department and college events, including meetings, colloquia, and the like(Alexander, 2008). It may not always feel like these events are the best use of your time when you have teaching and scholarship to worry about. However, being visible, accessible, and present at the majority of events shows your colleagues you care and puts you in a position to meet and interact with people. You might even decide to be in your office with the door open at strategic times when most faculty are around. 

-       Take the time to talk with others when the opportunity presents itself. Your days will quickly fill up, and there will be moments when it feels like the last thing you have time to do is chat with colleagues. Resist that urge. Get to the department meeting early so that you can make small talk, enjoy the quick hallway conversation about movies, and prop yourself in a colleague’s doorway to ask how her weekend was (Kirk, 2013). These moments take little time, but they build the trust and familiarity that provide the foundation of relationships. 

-       Be involved in things outside your department.  Your campus likely has a center for teaching and learning (it may go by another name) that offers workshops and events. It may even have programs specifically for new faculty. Participate. Doing so may connect you not only to more senior faculty but also to early career faculty like yourself who can provide support. 

-       Be kind, patient, and considerate of the interests of others (Bess, 1992). One of the foundations of collegiality is the idea that our colleagues consider and look out for our interests even if we are not around at the time to do so. Develop a reputation of acting with integrity and trying to understand your colleagues’ perspectives. 

-       Avoid taking sides in department factions. This suggestion can be difficult, to be sure, but it is an important skill. Particularly in larger departments, faculty may have organized into smaller groups, perhaps based on disciplinary differences or even past political fights. Try not to get caught in this dynamic. First, interact with as many different faculty colleagues as you can so that it is clear you are not aligning with any particular cluster or clique. Second, remember that you do not need to be engaged in their battles. Remain noncommittal should they try to engage you in their debates, and do not repeat what one group might say about the other. That only causes trouble. 

-       Follow through. One of your most precious resources is your professional reputation, and you build that reputation slowly, over time, as your colleagues come to know you as reliable and dependable. We encourage you to take great care in completing the work you take on (e.g., on department committees, in associations) to ensure that it is always timely, thorough, and professionally done. You do not want to develop a reputation as a colleague whom others cannot trust. In general, it is better to say no to something (a topic we discuss in Chapter 10) than to take on work and not deliver. 

Finding Mentors, Allies, and Sources of Support 

Most of us have heard how important it is to have a mentor. Companies have mentoring programs, universities set up mentoring programs for first-year students, and early career faculty are encouraged to find a mentor or develop a mentor network. But what is a mentor and why is that person so important? 

Bode (1999) defines a mentor as “a guide or a sponsor – one who looks after, advises, protects, and takes a special interest in another’s development” (p. 119). Rockquemore and Laszloffy (2008) draw a distinction between a mentor and a sponsor: a mentor provides you with tips and support, while a sponsor uses her power or position to advocate for you with others and help advance your career. 

There are multiple potential benefits for early career faculty in a mentoring relationship. A mentor can serve as a friend who gives social and emotional support, a career guide to help with professional development, a source of information about an organization, an intellectual guide with whom to collaborate on scholarship, or any combination of these (Sands, Parsons, & Duane, 1991). Kiewra (2008) notes that, aside from opening doors and providing opportunities for you, being involved in a scholarly partnership with a mentor can allow you to watch a senior expert work, which can reveal an accomplished expert’s thought processes and work patterns. Mentors can also provide a sense of connection to the campus community and reduce isolation, something that can be particularly important for women and faculty of color who often describe a more isolating work environment (Boice, 1993; O’Meara et al., 2008). 

Inset 4.3.  Words from Early Career Faculty: Searching for Mentoring 

It’s just continuous reaching and looking for mentorship. It can be exhausting. – Karen 

Listen, I need some help on this area. I’m going to go to this person and I’m going to ask the question. – Michael 

Inset 4.4.  Words from Early Career Faculty: Look Beyond Your Department 

Get out of the department now and then. And I mean this in the best way possible, but it was actually one of the most helpful things that I’ve learned, that there’s much more on campus outside of these [office] walls. – Michael 

Try to build the strongest relationships you can in your department, but also … be working with people across colleges, across universities. – James 

Finding mentors can certainly be challenging, particularly when we are new to a campus. Following are some tips and strategies for building mentoring relationships: 

-       Think of a support network, rather than trying to identify a single mentor. Too often we are in search of the elusive holy grail of mentoring: a single person who can meet all of our professional needs. This tall order is likely to fail. Like Michael and Karen in Inset 4.3, we encourage you to build and access a network of experienced colleagues whom you can tap for advice on varied topics (e.g., research, teaching, relationship with your chair; O’Meara et al., 2008; Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008; Terosky & Gonzales, 2016). Build a team that can help meet your varied professional needs. 

-       Use both formal and informal means to find mentors. Many faculty development centers offer mentoring programs for early career faculty. However, research also suggests that the informal relationships that develop through other means are the most meaningful for faculty (Terosky & Gonzales, 2016; Trower, 2010). We encourage you to take advantage of formal mentoring programs as well as build your own support network. 

-       Build your network from both inside and outside your institution. You can collect mentoring and advice from your graduate school advisors and professors, senior colleagues within and outside of your department, and even more experienced junior colleagues who are not too far removed from your current experiences. Your department chair may also be an important resource for advice and for identifying others to whom you can reach out. Early in your career, your graduate school professors may be the ones who know your work best and can give you advice and feedback on publishing. Senior colleagues from outside your college or discipline may be of limited help in advising on tenure standards in your department but might provide valuable and objective advice on how to handle relationships with department colleagues. Both Michael and James share their advice in inset 4.4. 

-       Be proactive in building and nurturing your network. Tell colleagues that you are looking for someone who could mentor you in a particular area (e.g., teaching or a particular area of research) and ask them if they have any suggestions (Rockquemore & Laszloffy, 2008). Be intentional about building genuine relationships with members of your network (Bode, 1999) by taking them to coffee, getting to know them, and sharing ideas and resources with them. 

Ultimately, your relationships with your faculty colleagues on and off campus can be some of the most rewarding and valuable components of your professional life and serve as a resource throughout your career. 

Contrary to the image of the professor toiling alone at her desk, the wheels of faculty life are greased by our colleagues. As Alexander (2008) and others (e.g., O’Meara et al., 2008) have said, it is almost impossible to succeed in faculty work without support and guidance from others. Relationships with faculty colleagues can help us learn about the institution and its culture, give us tips on teaching, refine ideas for scholarship, and even just help us pass some time during the workday. We encourage you to think about a professional support network that is broad and diverse, one that is built to meet your varied, individual needs as a faculty member. At the same time, be both patient and persistent as you build these relationships. Be thoughtful about whom you identify to collaborate with on projects, to ensure that the work will be productive, and be sure that you can trust others’ discretion before sharing too much personal information or something that might come back to hurt you later. While the relationships may not develop as quickly as you would like, if you put in the effort (as James describes in Inset 4.5), it will be worth the time. 

Inset 4.5.  Words from Early Career Faculty: Reaching Out to Colleagues 

I’m having to work harder … building a lot more collaboration [i.e., with a colleague in another state] whose interests are very similar to me. And I just wrote to him and said, “Hey, I’ve got this data. Do you have anything that might compare with it? We can submit a bigger study together; if not, maybe you’re still interested in just writing this with me.” I’ve been really active about that, and that’s not nearly as easy as walking down the hall and chatting. – James 

Working with Disciplinary Colleagues 

As faculty, we have colleagues who are part of our broader discipline. These faculty colleagues can play a central role in professional success and growth, and tending to these relationships is an important part of building our reputation. For instance, as the quote in Inset 4.5 shows, James addressed his lack of engagement with departmental colleagues in his specialization by reaching out to others off campus for collaboration and intellectual growth. 

Building strong relationships with disciplinary colleagues can be particularly important for minoritized faculty, given their small numbers in many fields and on many campuses. For these scholars, off-campus colleagues may be among the few options for finding others who share the same research interests. These off-campus colleagues can also be key sources of emotional and professional support. 

There is no one way to build your network of disciplinary colleagues, so we offer several ideas: 

-       Participate in preconference workshops offered by your professional association for early career faculty. 

-       Attend the less formal conference presentations, such as roundtables and poster sessions, where you can engage in one-on-one and small group conversation. 

-       Identify colleagues you would like to meet at a conference and then reach out to them before a conference to see if they would like to grab coffee or a meal to discuss their work. 

-       Look for mentoring programs within your scholarly associations. Many associations have programs to connect more junior scholars with senior scholars. 

In Chapter 10 of their book, Rockquemore and Laszloffy (2008) also offer helpful ideas for connecting with others beyond your campus, including looking for gender, racial, or ethnic organizations in your field (e.g., Latinx sociologists) and posting questions to electronic mailing lists and discussion boards. For this final suggestion, we offer a caveat: Be sure that whatever you post is professional and appropriate, because your own campus colleagues might see it. 


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