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Tuesday, January 30, 2020

Picky, picky . . . or compliant team-player?

Look at this statement from Great Britain about the coming year’s cadre of university graduates entering the job market:
There were also worries that graduates were becoming increasingly selective and demanding, with many dismissing industries because of a negative perception about them or being unwilling to travel or relocate to other parts of the country to land a job.
It seems that: “employers are increasingly worried that picky university leavers lack not only the right skills and qualifications, but even the right outlook to get on in the world of work.” Among the “problems” that British employers note are “finding applicants with the right combination of skills, particularly those with ‘soft’ skills such as team-working or leadership.”

Words such a team-working appear clear enough, but I suspect there is a coded message in here. The word “picky” gives it away. For traditional employers, team-working means fitting in, doing what you are told, and putting the needs of the “team” (read “organization”) above your own. Leadership means making sure that those under your charge behave as good team-workers.

From this standpoint, when problems arise, the place for change is clear: it’s you. If an organization is falling behind in terms of creativity or product innovation, the problem is that the workers aren’t creative enough. If customer service is poor, that’s down to the people involved. Replace them, re-train them, put in new bosses to whip them into shape. If the whole organization is failing, sack the CEO and hire some high-profile “company doctor” to sort it all out.

Many problems are not due to employees at all: they’re caused by organizational failings and lousy systems. Corporate culture has often been able to “solve” them, without recourse to difficult changes of policy or structure, by requiring individuals to change themselves and their lives in order to dig the organization out of the hole it has put itself in.

It doesn’t seem surprising to me that employees are becoming picky. Marketing has been training consumers to be more and more picky, promising the ability to “customize” virtually anything. Why not customize your job? Why not refuse to relocate at the employer’s whim, work hours that you don’t want to work, or put up with bosses who make your teeth ache? If you feel good about your prospects (and most freshly graduated young people do), you’ll be tempted to lay down your terms, not just accept those on offer.

Do employees have to “fit in” and accept compromises?
Yes, but not in every instance, or as a matter of course.
Do organizations need team-workers?
Yes, but not in every job.

Just as the casual meaning of “work/life balance” assumes a false contrast between working and living, so casual assumptions about the need for complaint workers miss the point that there must be a balance between what organizations should ask of their employees, and where organizations must adapt to better fit those same employees’ needs and aspirations for a good life.

A civilized organization is one that takes these questions seriously and seeks to find good answers. Today’s typical organization whines about picky employees and assumes that the “correct” state of mind to be sought in recruits is one where what the organization wants is seen as inviolable law.

Those who run our society, whether in business or politics, naturally hanker after a totally compliant population. It makes their lives easier and ensures that they are not asked awkward questions. Yet democracy, which we hold up as the ultimate form of government, requires exactly the opposite: a population ready to question, probe, and refuse support to those who no long put the general good before their own interests. In business , those in charge are faced with the same ethical choice: aim for the common good, or run things to suit their private interests.

With a complaint workforce, they don’t have to face that issue at all. That’s why we should maybe applaud those picky British graduates for refusing to toe the corporate line.



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