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This is a reposting of an article I wrote on LinkedIn.

We hear a lot about what teams expect from the individual. Here are a few thoughts on what I would wish to see in a team.

1. A team should communicate at all levels and welcome input.

I have seen organisations where communication tended to be stratified across the org chart, and others where it was a strictly top-to-bottom process. Typically, decisions regarding the organisation’s policies, strategies and plans would be taken in a boardroom somewhere, and would be filtered down on an increasingly “need to know” basis through the ranks of partners and associates,until it reached the staff, who were treated like mushrooms.

“Oh, but we have employee satisfaction forms!” you hear the protests. Let’s see. What good is feedback when it is (a) solicited only rarely and (b) acted upon even less frequently?

I want to work in a team where communication and influence is possible in every direction. If you make decisions over my head, operating on an agenda I was not even made aware of, and which I had no means by which to influence, only to eventuallycommunicate the outcome on an infrequent and erratic basis, then you have effectively disenfranchised me.

Where is the teamwork in that?

By contrast, here is an example of how a team should work.

I belong to a successful showband that went on tour in Europe last year. The goal was to get a gold medal at the World Music Contest in Holland. Every member from the bandmaster and committee all the way down to the youngest player understood and agreed with the goal, and that is why we had a hugely successful trip. You don’t get to play high profile gigs like Disneyland Paris or compete in world class competitions without everyone pulling in the same direction. The difference with regard to the band was in the way every member, no matter their role, was valued and included.

Which brings me onto the next point.

2. A team should allow contribution and value each member’s wider skillset.

There have been times when all of us just needed to get a foot in the door somewhere, somehow, and perhaps there was a time that might have worked. Whereas it might have been possible to get noticed once upon a time for your work ethic, willingness and abilities, and moved up the company, I don’t believe that is the case any more. That has certainly been borne out by my own experience: every job where I joined as support staff, I have eventually left as support staff. Opportunities to progress were either not there, or were being actively blocked by a jealous line manager (another example of poor team playing).

If anything, my volunteering, outside studies, and other interests and accomplishments have tended to be regarded by certain previous employers as an unwelcome distraction, rather than being seen as the signs of an achievement minded individual who wants to better themselves. I think the problem is because organisations, particularly as they become larger, get too locked into a “boxes on the org chart” mentality.

If you’re a broom-pusher, it’s hard for them to imagine that you might have skills that could add much more value to the organisation than clean floors. Or, for that matter, even be capable of learning them.

Once I prepared a full cost analysis proving that the company could potentially save a six figure sum per annum, just by making certain organisational adjustments. Yes, I’d had to estimate certain figures because I didn’t have access to information that would have revealed details about the partners’ salaries, but if the amounts were a bit off, someone only had to adjust them. Other than that, the work had already been done.

When the cost analysis was presented to the partners, they were so unprepared for the concept that someone who wasn’t a manager or a finance professional would even have the knowledge or inclination to prepare such a proposal, that I was given a metaphorical pat on the head and sent back to my desk to type a letter. The attitude was, effectively, “Let the big boys deal with that sort of thing, and don’t worry your pretty head about it.”

Somehow the various ideas I was suggesting, the other skills and knowledge I was offering, and other input above and beyond my paper title weren’t considered to constitute taking initiative, but tidying up someone else’s filing without being asked was. If you’re mere rank-and-file staff, initiative so far as managers are concerned should only be about focusing on the details. If you’re a natural big-picture thinker, then what?

A good team should allow a person to grow their role, or be flexible enough to move them to a role that is a better fit for their wider skillset. Or, dare I suggest it, even create one, where appropriate, in order to utilise the person’s talents for the benefit of the team.

How is it good for the team to keep those with rockstar potential pigeonholed in menial positions where they are, to put it bluntly, wasted?

(And then wonder why they become harder to motivate. Or see them as a problem and use the “revolving door” approach.)

3. The expectations placed on team members should be a two way street.

When I had an evening appointment and simply couldn’t work late at short (or no) notice a third day running, colleagues muttering under their breath about flexibility and being a team player isn’t helpful. No, it isn’t inflexibility or poor team playing every time you have to say no.

I’ve been in situations where I’ve been expected to endlessly go out of my way to offer to take on colleagues’ work, stay late at the drop of a hat to handle every emergency of someone else’s creation, and had the word “proactive” preached at me (what a horrible, tautological neologism – what does the word convey that the word “active” cannot?). But if I happened to be the one who needed a hand, where was the team then?

In that same department, out of all the people who left over a four year period, only a handful were wished well on their way with hugs and flowers. The other dozen or more just suddenly disappeared one day, in some cases after having worked loyally for years with our head of department.

If I am prepared to go out of my way to work hard for and with the team, then I want the team to be equally prepared to look out for me. Otherwise it violates the principle of exchange, and it is the team that eventually implodes due to the cynical culture it creates.

4. “Team player” isn’t a personality trait, it’s a process.

I worked in an organisation a few years ago where the policy was that students were not to be left alone in the classroom during study periods, even for a few seconds. I was therefore physically stuck in one place for most of the day. Often the only time apart from lunchtimes and a short afternoon tea break that I got to see any my colleagues was when an executive from another department came to check the attendance roster.

A couple of colleagues started a whingeing campaign alleging that I was isolating myself from the team, but where were they for most of the day? Not once did a colleague come into the classroom and ask if I needed any absentees called, or whether any students needed a volunteer partner for a practical exercise or drill, or if I needed help with any admin. And then the communications director disconnected the phone to my classroom so I couldn’t even call down to Reception if I needed anything!

Team members need to realise that good working relations have to be worked at by everyone. The manager or team leader needs to play an active part in ensuring that not only is this done, but that it is not prevented by little cliques excluding certain individuals.

I believe it is folly for organisations to demand in recruitment adverts or performance appraisals that people be “team players”. The way that team behaviour manifests is largely down to the culture fostered by the management, not down to the new recruit. Even the most responsive, approachable and willing person can’t be a team player in isolation.

5. A team should recognise when something is best done by the individual.

There are parts of the creative process that are best done alone. While teamwork is valuable at the implementation stage, thoughts and ideas come from one individual at a time.

And sometimes the best way to get something done is just to let the person get on with their work.

6. A team should welcome different perspectives.

I always think it is very sad when organisations seem to want staff who are happy to be assimilated by the Borg rather than just let people be themselves in the workplace.

Under the mantra of “team fit”, we’re supposed to meet a cookie-cutter personal specification before we are graciously allowed a seat at the table.

Without a certain diversity, teams stagnate, and the risk of groupthink sets in.

Teams need to welcome colourful or eccentric characters, those with unusual interests, those with unconventional educational histories including the self-taught, those from different working backgrounds, the multidisciplinarian, the creative visionary, the guy/girl with the genius level IQ, or the Aspie with astonishing talents. It’s not good enough to justify their rejection because “they won’t fit in”.

This mindset is further reinforced with thought-stopping mantras like “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

We have become so indoctrinated into the idea that the team is all and the individual nothing that organisations are now refusing to include the sectors of the population who have historically been the drivers of progress. In the name of the mighty team.

And that is a shame, because these are the people that teams need. Asking whether someone will be able to work with the team is the wrong question. We should be asking how teams can work with those people with extraordinary minds.

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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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Yesterday, this article was brought to my attention:

http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130130005035-15454-bill-gates-and-is-hr-recruiting-stuck-in-a-time-warp

I particularly liked these gems:

“Companies still post boring jobs, hoping to find exceptional people where no one else looked before.”

And especially:

“We still preclude people who have great ability, but without the so-called “proper” background or requisite years of experience to be considered. In our rush to hire at scale we still ignore the needs of those being hired and how they make decisions.”

The whole article is worth reading, as are the readers’ comments at the bottom of the page.

I think the author makes an important observation with his #1 point: defining the role in terms of future performance objectives, rather than years on the job and shopping lists of arbitrary requirements.

I have met enough box-ticking recruiters to last several lifetimes. I was asked at an agency whether I had ever used a certain Outlook-based file management system before, and she looked solemn and dubious when I said that wasn’t a package I had seen, but I was perfectly willing to learn.

When I finally went to a company that had this system, it took me about five minutes to find my way around it and how it worked. How many openings was my application not put forward for, simply because of these arbitrary requirements that are only an obstacle because the first stage recruitment staff make them one?

I’m reminded once again of the correlations of various factors to job performance. When are bosses going to bring their recruitment policies into the 21st century and start heeding it? 

Psychometric intelligence test: 0.51
Work sample test: 0.54
Integrity test: 0.41
Conscientiousness test 0.51
Employment interview (structured): 0.51
Employment interview (unstructured): 0.38
Reference checks: 0.26
Job experience (years): 0.18
Years of education: 0.10
Interests: 0.10
Graphology (handwriting analysis): 0.02
Age: -0.01

Source: J. E. Hunter and R. F. Hunter (1984) “Validity and utility of alternative predictors of job performance.” Psychological Bulletin, 96, 72-98 and F. L. Schmidt and J. E. Hunter (1998) “The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings.” Psychological Bulletin, 124, 262-74.

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