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Archive for October, 2013

I recently stumbled across an online discussion between mainly HR professionals who were responding to the question why some people can’t work as part of a team.

Responses seemed either to assume that it was because the individual in question was an introvert, or because they didn’t want their weaknesses to be found out, or because they were a narcissistic personality.

I decided to put the record straight on the first point straight away. I have never seen anything in any serious literature on psychology or personality types that suggests that a person can’t work as a team member just because he/she is an introvert. I suspected that commenters were making the common mistake of confusing introversion with shyness, and explained what energizes different personality types. If HR professionals really believe this stuff, it actually would explain a lot.

With regard to people with specific weaknesses, those that I have personally observed in the workplace love to bury themselves in the concept of “the team” because it means that their own particular camouflaged hole is less visible. Production and workload belong to “the department”, therefore they do not have to be accountable when they are not pulling their own freight. As a more productive member of the team I frequently found myself having to step in and pick up parts of their workload when they fell behind, and this to them was normal and natural and anything else would have marked colleagues who became fed up with it and would have preferred to let them take the rap for it from the boss as “not being team players” in a fantastic 180 degree twist. Bosses are usually the last to find out for this reason.

As for narcissists, they are too good at their own personal PR campaigns to allow themselves to be seen in such a negative light. A narcissist would never allow himself to stick out like a sore thumb. What they actually do is to form cliques. You as their colleague are then either in or out of the clique. They cosy up to the boss, spinning him or her a yarn, while creating conflicts among colleagues. If you, as their colleague, happen to find yourself on the outside of the clique, then YOU become the one who is visibly isolated and “not fitting in”.

Most people want to contribute to the overall group effort, to have their voices heard and their ideas taken on board – even we hard-to-fit pieces who are a little “different”. There are very few true total recluses, and I doubt that they would end up working for an organization in the first place.

So it is not the lone wolf who is the threat to the team – cliques are.

It takes firm leadership from managers to notice what is going on and who is instigating it, and to act appropriately to ensure that everyone is being included and their contributions valued.

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Recently I stumbled upon one of those blog entries on LinkedIn written by one of their designated “influencer” bloggers. Typically, these take the form of some insipid piece of business “advice” that rather reminds me of the whole Norman Vincent Peale genre of self-growth books.

The business coach who wrote the article described a story involving a young woman who sought out her advice at a conference. Initially hired to modernize the firm’s social media presence, she stated that for the first year the position worked out well, and her boss was happy. Then suddenly, the boss started criticising everything she did. The business coach, after listening to her story, was of the opinion that she had evolved beyond the original job spec rather faster than her boss had originally envisioned, and being something of an Internet dinosaur himself, he was now perceiving her as a threat.

I felt compelled to comment on this article, because something about this story sounded depressingly familiar.

The advice I wrote in my comment wasn’t regarding my own assumptions about the boss’s motivation for his behaviour. (I would have at least needed to hear his side of the story before I made up my mind about that.) But what I could advise the young lady on was the type of things the boss would almost certainly do if he decided he no longer wanted her around.

So I wrote:

If your boss wants you gone, this is how he will do it. Even if you think your social media and presentation skills are getting results beyond doubt and you have friends in senior places in the company, do not assume that your job is safe. [Your boss] will ensure you get a bad appraisal first of all by attacking your soft skills. He will claim you are difficult to work with and not a team player. He will lose memos and emails or “forget” you briefed him on an important project to make it look like you are disorganised or don’t liaise enough. He will precipitate conflicts with colleagues. Once self-doubt starts to set in and you make your first unfortunate mistake, there will be a memo all about it on your HR director’s desk before you’ll know what’s happened. This is a classic example of workplace bullying.

You see, this story encapsulates exactly why I have such reservations about performance appraisals including so-called “soft skills” as competencies. Unless they are things that can be measured or quantified objectively, then the only way they can be assessed is by the subjective judgement of the person doing the appraisal. Even if that person is not the lady’s line manager, then he/she will still have the reports of the line manager to go on, and which will inevitably colour the appraisal process. This, plus various complaining memos that the line manager diligently supplies to HR about her every trivial mistake, could eventually lead to a paper trail being built over time that “proves” the employee is underperforming.

Perhaps I am not the only one to have encountered this subjective soft skills appraisal issue in the workplace. Last time I checked, the comment had attracted over 100 likes and a number of replies (but interestingly not, however, by the original poster!).

Workplace bullies love items like “communication skills”, “team skills” and “flexibility” on appraisal forms as they can be interpreted any way the bullying manager wants to. The bully can use his or her seniority in the hierarchy to make reports of poor interpersonal skills etc. stick, and will ensure that conflicts (that the bully has precipitated) are observed by or reported back to senior managers or HR.

Senior managers inevitably leave it up to HR to “get rid of the problem”. Firing the employee whose motivation and confidence are by that stage probably through the floor is probably seen at best as collateral damage and more likely as simply getting rid of an “underperformer”.

It is my speculation that senior managers never find out the full cost of the talent their companies may lose in this way.

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So England’s young adults trail the world in literacy and numeracy, do they?

See the BBC News report here.

Here is the link for downloading the actual full report.

Of course, the popular press reported various business leaders’ groups bemoaning the fact that they cannot find staff with the right skills to fill positions. Unfortunately, they do seem to have a point – I have, in the past, been charged with the task of screening applications for junior office staff. I also, at one point, had students bringing me their dissertations to type up. Basic skills were often sadly lacking.

However, I have also been, at various times, a jobseeker, with literacy, numeracy and information technology skills that were more than adequate for the types of positions being applied for.

You would not have thought, from some of the ridiculous comments (when feedback managed to be obtained at all) that there was a skills shortage in this country.

I still laugh incredulously when I remember the interview I had once where the interviewer told the job agency (and I’m honestly not making this up) that I “didn’t smile enough”. This was not for a front-of-house position, or a job in the “caring” professions. It was a simple clerical job!

I have seen companies I have worked for hire people who were friendly, charming and well-presented at interview, and whose standard of work turned out to be disappointing, to say the least – problems with spelling, lack of knowledge of the most basic office software functions, and difficulty following simple instructions.

Oh, and now I see Richard Branson “hires for personality“. Umm…okaaaay. Can you say “halo effect”?

Perhaps some employers out there would like to explain how, if basic skills are so badly lacking in this country, they can be so flippant and shallow as to reject skilled, quality candidates for utterly superficial reasons.

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