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Collective Agreement

By Jim Bright
The Bright Side - MyCareer

Managers value individual effort but you must work as part of the team.

Jillian writes: "At the age of 42, I moved to a rural community from Sydney. To say finding quality employment is difficult is an understatement. I applied for no fewer than 83 advertised jobs before I was successful. Unable to take the stifling hierarchy of my most recent employer any longer, I have just resigned after three years.

"In the interview nobody seems to want to talk about what the job actually entails. The questions centre on how well you work in a 'team environment'. I get it, employers are focused on having cohesive work places, but are HR personnel aware that, as a culture, Australians value very highly individual achievement?"
 
"I do not know of a single person who got a promotion for 'working well in a team environment'. I don't want to work for a company that wants me to dumb myself down and I'm finding it difficult to maintain my resilience. I have a great CV, am doing a degree and, as you would expect for a 47-year-old, have a rich and diverse experience that would make me an asset to any business."

Jillian's reaction to endless questions about fitting in is one shared by many frustrated job applicants. Without further detail of the specifics of Jillian's case, I cannot provide her with specific advice but there appear to be some general themes in her words that apply to many people.

In particular, my eye was drawn to the comments "stifling hierarchy" and "I do not know of a single person who got a promotion for 'working well in a team environment"'. Both comments appear to reflect a strong individualistic streak and a desire to be personally recognised at work.

These can be admirable qualities and very useful in the workplace. However, employers are heavily biased towards people who they believe will work harmoniously and constructively with others.

The problem for Jillian might not be that she is incapable of working effectively with others but that she might not be conveying sufficient enthusiasm or evidence that she in fact can do this. Often for people whose needs for independence are so dominant that they get frustrated in teams or bureaucracies, the answer lies in some form of self-employment.

However, for some, this option is not practical, or their risk aversion is even higher than their need for independence. In which case they need to get real about compromise.

Her statement that she knows of no one being promoted for good teamwork is provocative. It is not clear whether Jillian expresses herself so emphatically in interviews and applications but harbouring beliefs such as thinking that effective team members don't get promoted is going to raise a red flag for employers. You can argue that is twisting her words, but what do you think an employer would hear in her statement?

Maybe I mix in different circles but I can readily think of many people who failed to be promoted precisely because they were seen as too self-obsessed and not good team players. Indeed, may I be presumptuous enough to suggest that as much as Australians value individual performance, they also value team, collective and community contribution.

If I were working with Jillian as a client, I would be looking to explore the degree of her need for freedom and individuality at work to understand if this was an expression of frustration with job hunting or more deep-seated and perhaps reflecting a desire for more of a leadership role, or a self-employment role.

Her doing a degree suggests more senior roles may be her aim. I would also be looking at strategies to reframe her thinking around teamwork and I would coach her to present an effective message about her team performance in both her written applications and her interviews.

Jim Bright is professor of career education and development at ACU and a partner at Bright and Associates, a career management consultancy. Send emails clearly marked "For publication" to brightside@jimbright.com.

Published: 30 July 2011


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