Michael Kuhar on Getting Collegial

By Paige Parvin 96G

Illustration of four workers putting their hands in the center of the group like a sports team

Don Morris

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Michael Kuhar

Kay Hinton

Most of us have jobs that ask us to interact with coworkers on a daily basis. The success of these interactions can make or break our experience at work—helping us feel productive, valued, and happy, or frustrated and resentful.

As common as those experiences are, there’s no blueprint for building healthy, constructive relationships in the workplace. Michael Kuhar, Candler Professor of Neuropharmacology and a researcher at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, tries to close that gap with his book The Art and Ethics of Being a Good Colleague.

“This is sort of a life experience book,” Kuhar says. “I have been teaching, consulting, and collaborating for more than four decades, and I realized I had something to say about this.”

Using an approach he calls collegial ethics, Kuhar, also a member of Emory’s Center for Ethics, outlines step-by-step techniques for increasing our understanding of what’s at play in our work interactions and using that knowledge to make them better. “Supporting and being fair to our colleagues, which is the mandate of collegial ethics, can be done in hundreds of ways in various situations,” he writes.

Eight Ways to Improve Your Relationships at Work

Accept It: You’re Only Human. Kuhar starts by exploring human nature and its influence on our behavior—how and why we react to situations and to each other in certain ways. “The key is to realize that our feelings and urges are not commandments,” Kuhar says. “We can act after thought and according to certain principles. It’s possible to put aside those natural feelings and urges.”

Speak with Respect. “Many of us need to develop a more benign and less judgmental language when talking about others,” Kuhar says. “Some people are born nonjudgmental and matter-of-fact, while others tend to be more harsh, treating others jokingly. That has a way of changing the attitudes of people around you. Show respect for others, and they will find it easier to return.”

Consider the Hippocratic Oath. Before taking action, we need to consider whether it might harm others and, if so, whether that harm can be eliminated or reduced. For instance, Kuhar says, when writing a reference for someone you don’t particularly like, put personal feelings aside and strive for balanced, objective candor.

Put the Past in Its Place. “Detraction” is the destructive practice of bringing up past events in a way that’s critical and harmful to coworkers. “Unless the past is having a current negative impact, there’s no reason to bring it up,” Kuhar says. “People deserve a break and should have the right to start fresh.”

Be Brave. A good colleague sometimes needs to show courage to support and help another. We should actively develop our sense of courage, Kuhar says, as well as our good judgment about when it’s called for—and be prepared for the consequences. When we choose to support a coworker who may be unpopular with others, it takes bravery to meet the challenge.

Give Credit Where It’s Due. We all know it, but it can be easy to forget. “There is literally nothing that makes people feel good and helps build relationships like getting credit when it is deserved,” Kuhar says. “Sometimes the culture of the organization does not foster that—certain people take or receive all the credit. But it is a fair and rewarding act to give recognition and praise when it has been earned.”

Take Your Time. The practice of collegial ethics may seem like common sense, but in fact, it takes time to absorb and develop the key skills—which are surprisingly uncommon. “Human beings are capable of learning and changing, but they need to spend some time and have a program and a plan,” Kuhar says. “Collegial ethics is intended to be that program.”

Show the Way. Model the behaviors of collegial ethics for your colleagues. Offer support, withhold judgment, and acknowledge accomplishments. As Kuhar points out, “People respect mentors who act according to their beliefs.”

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