A force to be reckoned with — how to collaborate successfully

Collaborative projects are a fixture of academic careers. From undergraduate level to Postdoctoral research, team assignments or co-authorships are inevitable and can test your interpersonal skills.

The opportunity to exchange ideas and gain new perspectives is fundamental to academia, but collaboration can also throw up challenges, such as time management, troubleshooting, and professionalism. It is one thing to receive feedback and constructive criticism on solo projects, but it requires tact and skill to successfully communicate difficult feedback to colleagues, especially when stress levels are high.

Collaborations can make or break reputations, and excellent research can be overshadowed by poor working relationships. Collaborations extend to partnerships with industry and access to funding can be subject to alliances with corporate bodies.

To thrive in challenging partnerships, set clear goals and working practices from the outset. Understand the key milestones and identify the best means of communication. By creating a clear timeline and structuring your meetings so that you are economical with time, you can avoid misunderstandings and workload imbalances.

We have taken Helen Kara’s Top Tips for Successful Collaboration, added some of our own:

Be prepared
Read up properly in anticipation of your first meeting. Creating a good impression as an organised and reliable colleague lays the foundations of good, fruitful collaboration.

Set sensible deadlines
It can be tempting to impose ambitious deadlines but consider your other commitments. It is always better to have completed tasks properly. Account for proofreading and referencing, as these tasks always take longer than anticipated.

Avoid rescheduling
Identify regular meeting times and stick to them. Make yourself available for video calls if you can’t meet in person. Excuse yourself at the earliest possible moment if you really do have to reschedule. Time management and good planning are valued skills. Know what your priorities are to avoid a reputation for being unreliable, and always arrive on time.

Keep communication lines open
Be open and honest with your colleagues about any challenges you’re facing. If you aren’t able to deliver, let them know. Meeting in person is the best way of strengthening bonds and building working relationships. It is discourteous to ignore emails, phone calls, or text messages, so be timely with responses to queries.

Address those who are failing to deliver, politely and with tact
This is a key skill that will help to maintain harmony. Learn to be diplomatic, but persuasive. Always seek to maintain a professional relationship and avoid conflict at all costs. In an international working environment, be aware that communication can sometimes be misinterpreted, and different courtesies may apply.

Don’t waste time repeatedly chasing up colleagues, focus on your workload and re-evaluate in the next meeting
If collaborators prove to be poor at timekeeping or fail to deliver, don’t waste time trying to micro-manage. Consider what your commitments are and focus your energy on completing the tasks assigned to you. Problem-solving is a big part of collaboration and schedules can be revised where necessary.

Accept feedback graciously
Negative feedback can be hard to take, however, don’t take disappointing news personally. Remember that successful learning is the product of trial and error. Understand your weaknesses and seek to improve the next time around.

Reflect on previous collaborations
Once a collaboration has come to an end, get feedback from colleagues. Objectively think about what worked, and what didn’t. Be honest with yourself and build on your experience.

Celebrate your successes
Working closely with others can form strong bonds and establish friendships that can last a career or even a lifetime. Remember to ‘thank’ colleagues and to congratulate them when key deadlines are met, and goals achieved. Work is important, but allow yourself time to relax.

Keep your collaborative relationships professional
Treat colleagues with respect, irrespective of seniority. Good working relationships are not compatible with autocratic or hostile working styles. Value your colleagues for their experience and their diversity and learn from them.

Allow everyone time to express their ideas
This is one of the most important principles of successful collaboration. Even in time-pressured situations it is important that everyone is heard. Dominating meetings or shutting down discourse can lead to resentment, lack of mutual respect, and ultimately a bad working environment.

Share these guidelines with potential collaborators prior to working together. If you are in agreement, the relationship should be a harmonious one.

By identifying essential goals and agreeing on the best lines of communication from the outset, you will minimise the potential for misunderstandings and poor time management. Most important of all, allow collaborators to express themselves in an open forum of ideas. Being open, flexible, and reliable will help you to form valuable relationships with collaborators throughout your career.

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