Do you have a toxic collaborator?

What's yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)
What’s yours? (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

At some time in everyone’s academic lives, there will be cause for collaboration angst.

It may all start golden: big ideas, excitement about working with new colleagues, the potential for fancy-pants funding and intellectual glory.

And if you were invited onto a prestigious team by a favoured prof…well, you’d almost fall over signing up, right?

Then, down the track, you’re looking at the fifth ‘I still haven’t done it’ email from Collaborator 2, or – worse still – finding no email from Collaborator 3…ever.

How many times is it physiologically safe to roll one’s eyes at Collaborator 4 for declaring yet again that they should be first author?

I’ve written before about how to find research friends and make co-writing work, which have focused for the most part on the positive habits and traits that lead to successful, satisfying collaborations.

This post focuses on the flipside.

Finding out that your co-writer or co-investigator is awful to work with could be a gradual soul-destroying process, or a very rapid soul-destroying process. Either way? Soul destroyed.

Added to the mix are complicated intersections of status, power and privilege, and often emotional baggage from professional (or deeper) friendships. The earlier you can see that the collaboration isn’t going to work, the easier it may be to duck out of the project, or at least implement processes that will mean you emerge with your sanity and sense of self intact.

Here are 5 signs that you may have a toxic collaborator:

1. They consistently miss deadlines. Unfortunately, this is one of the key, but harder, signs to get a handle on. Until they start missing deadlines, you don’t know they’re going to miss deadlines, right?

It can also be a tough one to judge. While heinous collaborators who have complete disregard for deadlines and the effects on their (often junior) colleagues are fairly easy to spot, it’s harder to call it when it’s someone who just seems to have bad luck and rolling crises in their lives, ready excuses for why stuff wasn’t done, or instant promises for handing things over ‘next week’.

2. They frequently say ‘I’m the first author’ (without actually acting like the first author…). This issue is about confusion over roles, or unsuitability for them, and it’s also about abiding by scholarly protocols around professional behaviour (e.g. there are clear guidelines for who should be named first author on publications, or to be a named author at all, in the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research [829 kb pdf]).

It’s all very well to want to be the first author, but this brings with it a swag of responsibilities and levels of contribution. Saying it doesn’t make it so, nor does being a senior academic, or being the one who went to university with the journal’s editor.

3. They don’t listen to feedback. They don’t want to hear it – not from you, other members of the team, or the “<bleeping> reviewers”. Not only does this make them a difficult collaborator, chances are they’re difficult in all aspects of their life and terrible human beings.

Ahem. But, seriously, not being able to respond appropriately and thoughtfully to feedback is a big red flag. Research and writing always improves with testing out on others, finding out what needs re-casting, what you’ve missed, or which sections need more clarity. Nothing is ever ‘finished’ or perfect. Any researcher who doesn’t get that will be a challenge to those who do.

4. They’re all take and no give. (There was a really catchy rhyming subtitle I was going to use here that involved the term ‘banker’ but I have given it up in the interests of good taste and professionalism)

When you’re working with others, there’s a pool of goodwill that needs tending. As with the most important consumables, like air and clean water, collaborative goodwill is not an endless resource.

For example: Can’t do the refs on that paper? That’s OK, Collaborator 3 will do it this time seeing as you were the liaison and proofed the final draft for the last one. However, if it was Collaborator 2 who was asking for a bit of slack…we-ell, Collaborator 2 has yet to do any of the real work on re-writes, or shown any initiative in approaching potential industry partners, or done any of the data-crunching from the last round of fieldwork, or…you get the idea.

There’s nothing wrong with asking others to help you out and take up your slack every so often, as long as you have done (and would do) the same for them. If your collaborator only ever slurps from the pool of goodwill, but never brings any of their own, that is a sure sign of a toxic collaborator.

5. They communicate badly. I’ve left this one till last because it’s often the most destructive of behaviours.

Any of the first four signs are bad enough, but if they exist alongside this one, I’d be happily voting that collaborator off the island.

There is no set formula for good communication because it depends on your collaborators and the project at hand. For some teams, regular face-to-face meetings are a must. For others, emails with updates and questions are enough.

The dynamics are highly personalised, and what works for one of your projects (with a longer timeline and familiar collaborators) won’t for another (where the collaborator is new to you and the project must be delivered in six months). The power relations within the team will also have an influence, as does basic personality. @thesiswhisperer wrote about the damage that silence can do (“Feeding the crazy“), and these considerations should be a part of any collaborative team.

Basically, is everyone happy with the way the team communicates? It doesn’t have to be that everyone communicates in the same way – just that everyone can understand and live with how others operate, and – most importantly – trust that the work will get done.

Now that you know how to tell if you may have a toxic collaborator, what can you do about it? Well, now that would have to be another post…

Many thanks to @meganjmcpherson and @rellypops for their contributions to this post during our foundational brainstorming session at the ANU garret!


  1. Reblogged this on Rhonda Wilson MHN and commented:
    Some excellent tips about working in research and writing teams… but the general principles can be applied more broadly in nursing and health care practice and beyond I suspect… toxic team members sap the strength out of any teams… good productive and successful teams share the love…. and the hard yards!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked the post, Rhonda. You’re totally right – applicable across sectors/workplaces! And feeling trapped in a toxic team, or with a toxic team member, can be the worst kind of ongoing work stress. I definitely think prevention is better than cure!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The 5 points are all spot on! It’s really devastating to work with somebody awful. I still remember how I shut myself off, literally, from the world for a few days just to contain my anger. I was quite close friends with that person initially and could somehow sense that we would have problem working with her. Sad thing was given the shared space and friendship we had at uni and the occasional thought of doing projects together with other people, I found it difficult to say no to her when she asked if she could join the team (I was leading the project by the way). I gave her a try, so to speak. But weeks later, my hunch proved me right and all the nightmares revealed themselves as we went on with the project. The team suffered and the issue earned us quite a bad reputation with the department we worked with. Of course, we talked it out and resolved the issue with that person. At the same time, I would really think twice whether I should work with that person anymore – one more person to be added to the DO-NOT-WORK-WITH-LIST perhaps.

    I just wonder how academics work out these things – especially when you know you have to work with somebody you don’t quite like and find yourself in a difficult position to say no for various reasons (e.g. s/he is *assigned* to you, you’re friends with that person, only that person has the expertise in XYZ area, etc.).


    • Thanks for sharing that experience, Cally. It sounds like a difficult situation, particularly if you can see the problems coming but are compelled in ways to still go through with the collaboration. I think it is esp hard when they’re assigned, as this probably taps into higher structures of power that would be tricky to take on.

      That said, I think it’s good to have ways of _not_ working with friends just because they’re friends. There must be tight reasons why a team is what it is, and grant applications demand justifications for this in the clearest way, so if you have a friend with whom you know you wouldn’t work well…it might be useful to have exit strategies/reasons in mind. In the end, you’re the one who has to live with the bad outcomes (and possible resulting bad relations) – a Band-aid approach (fast removal, pain up front) may be better!


  3. Hi – over a (far too) long period of time, I have had a lot of collaborations. I also have a do-not-play-with-this-person list. Luckily, it is not a long one. I find that communication can overcome human failings – be honest and open and people will both forgive you and help you (as you should them).

    After a while you get used to reading the signs and gut-instinct works – you should trust those hackles when they go up. They are a survival instinct left over from an era that we would probably rather not admit to, but they have helped us survive so far, so they are not all bad. After a few bad starts, I have now developed a series of phases for establishing collaborations that start small and then only build into mission-critical project status after we have had a trial of the team (i.e. does it work?).

    I start with the three year rolling plan… do you have one (yes = move to phase 2; no = reconsider options). No plan is going to succeed if it can’t be articulated and any collaborators will want to know that you can walk the talk. Ideally, your collaborators’ plans and your plans will match in aspiration and potential. If not, you have something to talk about before you take the risk. By the way, Phase 2 is sharing the plan.

    Then we plan to do something small like write a literature review/ conceptual paper for a specific journal (this all depends but in my discipline we can write something without crunching data all the time, it helps but is not always required). This way, if the collaboration fails, the only deficit is a half written paper and a guilty conscience for one or more of you. That is, not failing to deliver on a project outcome, or worse, spending the entire summer ‘break’ personally covering for the unfunded failure of a team member to come through (yes, that was me).

    IF, AND ONLY IF, our relationship stands the test of these two things, we move to Phase 3, which is to create a new plan between us with goals and expectations discussed at the outset. This lowers the overall toxicity for those collaborations that you get to choose … I am lucky that in the main I get to choose who I work with.

    But then there are the normal day to day toxic swamps designed especially for academic project teams that are thrown together for no good reason other than they were hanging about in the office (corridor, seminar room, bar, cafeteria, etc) for too long. THOSE can be problem teams where power, control, politics and other tricky issues arrive with very little notice (ergo no capacity to plan) and a lot of risk to the project.

    Of course, some of these projects are both interesting and fun (as well as funded), so if you can work it out you might have a great team as a result of an opportunity that was thrown at you. A bit of planning helps, and a bit of flexibility helps too. Make time to talk about the ‘project’ as a matter of priority – in academia we tend to think that people can work totally autonomously, that they ‘know the rules’ – this is especially not true in new teams where the rules have to be navigated as the team evolves. We all have different rules when we come to work with new teams.

    Don’t expect anyone to know is needed without asking. Don’t worry about asking. They can only say no, then you can move on to Plan B, Plan C or that contingency plan if you can find in with all those other plans.

    OK, no more plans, lets just do it and see what happens. Everyone fails sometime, you might as well get it over and done with and then you can learn from your mistakes.


    • (Gah – just lost really long response!!)

      This could’ve been a stand-alone post, Linda! Thanks for sharing your ‘stepping-stone’ approach to testing out collaborative relationships and whether they are worth pursuing. I agree that starting small is always better than being dazzled by the idea of working together + finding yourself stuck in a bad, big situation.

      Good, transparent communication can overcome a whole bunch of problems but, sometimes, people are just bad collaborators. There’s not much you can do about that…except avoid.


  4. Sorry to be a bit late to the party here, but just wanted to say thank you for this very interesting post. Good to know that others have similar experiences. I actually found this post via the follow up on how to deal with toxic collaborators.

    Personally I have had some mixed experiences, even working with people I have previously gotten to know quite well. One example, where I agreed to work on a grant application with a colleague who I was previously very friendly with (helped her shop for her wedding dress friendly!), but working together on a project together was a disaster. It was a classic example of what you talk about above of having lots of legitimate excuses for not meeting deadlines – and i think when you are friends with someone these excuses tend to be much more detailed and personal, and therefore harder to go up against. After months of stalled progress, and when it became apparent we were going to miss the deadline I tried to raise the issues and try to find a different outlet for the work and work together in a more productive way, but she took this as a very personal attack on our friendship and, long story short, now we are no longer friends.

    On a more positive note, I was recently invited by my previous PhD supervisor (4 years after finishing my PhD) to coauthor on a paper she was working on which linked with a theory i had used in my work. I was a bit dubious to start with but it worked out great. Our relationship (previously teacher>student and now peer>peer) has changed appropriately and when i sent back some very tough feedback on the first draft, everything i said was listened to and valued.

    So, it just goes to show, you never know how things are going to turn out.

    Thanks again for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have the worst situation. A former Phd advisor who does absolutely nothing — by nothing I mean nothing— but expects to be second author on ALL my papers. I am slowly weaning myself from this outrageously exploitative relationship but it is not as easy as it would seem.
    The good news is that I have started to initiate and nurture good collaborative relationships with other experienced authors. This has helped tremendously.

    I am learning as I go. I am finding out what I like and don’t like. I have found that I especially dislike researchers who take shortcuts when writing their papers. e.g. randomly collecting ‘data’ and then fitting in theory at the end. This type of researcher seems to hate rigor and will refuse to go through a thorough internal review and revise process and will take any critique personally.

    I like big picture people who dream big and shoot for the stars. They are a joy to work with.

    Overall, I think it is far more expedient to just stop working with toxic collaborators than to try and fix the relationship. Take a sunk costs approach as early on in projects as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

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