Seven signs it’s time to get out: spotting toxic collaborations in academia

Advice on how to spot the signs that a collaborative relationship isn’t nourishing to us and is possibly not worth continuing

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Building positive working relationships in academia deserves our attention and energy. I have written elsewhere about how to make the academic environment better for all, and about the importance of forgiveness and getting over the not-so-good experiences we might have had with collaborators.

But there are sometimes situations where no matter how much effort we put into collaborative relationships, it isn’t going to help. Regardless of our best intentions, we will end up feeling drained, stressed out, resentful, irritated and/or low. Since workloads are high, wellbeing is precious, and time is scarce, let’s learn how to spot the kinds of collaborative relationships that we really need to get out of, for our own sake and for the sake of our ability to positively contribute to academia. Having spoken with colleagues, I identified seven common signs to look out for.

1. Ambiguity 

Ambiguity and lack of clarity about the content of the collaboration and your role. There is a ‘project’ that someone has invited you to but they are vague about what exactly the project involves, what role they’d like you to play in it, and/or change their mind about their expectations of you. One day it’s all friendly and relaxed, and you’re just meant to participate in brainstorming sessions, then the next day they tell you that you should meet an upcoming deadline (which hadn’t been agreed with you). You’re confused and wonder if you’ve missed some important information.

2. Hierarchical treatment 

Hierarchical treatment and creation of a power relation between you and the project’s ‘leader(s)’. You think you’re all equal in this collaboration. Then you notice that the person or people who run the project address you as if you were subordinate to them. Without consultation, they take decisions about things which, in your view, should be discussed collectively. They talk to you in a patronising manner. When you try to speak with them on equal terms, they ignore you or show impatience. In interactions with them, you feel like a child, not like a competent professional.

3. Selfishness 

Selfishness on collaborators’ part. You work hard to contribute to the project while juggling other professional and personal commitments. The people running it keep emphasising how important the deadline which they have set is, and keep pressurising you to meet it. You discover that the ‘deadline’ is simply for their convenience. They don’t seem concerned about the fact that what is convenient to them might not be enough to make it a priority for others. The penny drops: they don’t care about anyone else involved in this project than themselves.

4. Lack of respect 

Lack of respect for your wellbeing and commitments beyond the project. Those running the project send you messages whenever it takes their fancy. No weekend breaks, no respite over holidays. When they receive an automatic response from your email address saying that you’re away, they email you again, ‘nudging’ you to respond immediately. You never told them that you would be replying to their messages when you’re off work. They send you more emails, expressing irritation at you. You feel harassed and hurt that they don’t respect your right to disconnect.

5. Inappropriate communications 

Inappropriate communications. The timings of communications from the collaborators aren’t the only thing that bothers you. You’re also taken aback by the overly familiar tone used in communications. You try to maintain what you believe is an appropriate professional distance, whereas they use a language infused with emotions and exaggeration. You start thinking it must be you: surely, you’re too sensitive. Surely, they’re just being ‘authentic’. You realise that every time an email from these collaborators comes, you’re filled with a sense of unease.

6. Lack of transparency

Lack of transparency about the collaborators’ actions. They keep talking about preparing a publication based on the project. You ask more questions and are told that, as experienced academics, the collaborators know what they’re doing. So instead of asking them, you ask yourself: am I really being put under all this pressure to contribute to a project which, in the end, might not result in any final output? Now you’re upset and feel stupid.

7. Advice from a friend

Advice to get out from a friend whose opinion you value. You tell a friend about what you’ve been experiencing and they just say: "get out!". You need no more signs.

In sum

Spotting any of these seven signs isn’t pleasant. Let’s view them in a positive light though, as a guide for when to get out of toxic collaborations, and to regain the energy that we need to forge and maintain nourishing working relationships in academia. This is what I wish us all in 2023 and for many years to come!

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