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…on work culture and teams

As we sat discussing the candidates, Sheila said it: “I don’t think this man will fit in. He’s able enough, experienced and hard-working, but he won’t fit in.” I swallowed hard and said nothing. The two other people on the interview panel agreed with Sheila. He would be like a round peg in a square hole. We didn’t employ him.

It was only days later that I worked out what was troubling me: in the interests of preserving a status quo, a perfectly suitable candidate had been passed over.

Now don’t get me wrong: work culture is very important. People work better if they are happy. Abrasive and conflicting issues in the workplace are a waste of time and energy. Relaxed and contented employees stay longer; there is less staff turnover. And so on.

But when someone decides that the culture at work needs to be maintained at the cost of good and experienced staff, then there’s a problem, because usually what underlies this is a resistance to alternatives and/or a refusal to change together with a clique-ish attitude to other people. Then, when someone says “He won’t fit in” what they really mean is “We feel safe and cosy; leave us alone.”

This ia a warning signal to me, because I associate it with potentially worrying work practices, not only resistance to change - although in these days, that’s bad enough. No, a workplace that wants to be kept free of different voices and challenges is more likely to cover up failure and hide the fact that lazy or unprofessional procedures are going on. It’s more akin to the principle of “honour among thieves” than genuine workplace solidarity.

Moreover, such groups of colleagues are often not at all happy and contented: insecurity and back-biting may be the order of the day. In my experience, the happiest workplaces are more open to new people with new approaches. “This man won’t fit in” may also be another way of saying “I have my position of power and I’m not giving it up.”

“He won’t fit in” has a related statement: “We’ve never tried it that way before” and/or “We tried it that way and it didn’t work.” These may indicate a workgroup that is seriously unhealthy. Ralph Neighbour saw this in the Church a generation ago and wrote his book: “The seven last words of the church; or We never tried it that way before.”* Neighbour thought that such a resistance to new ideas and practices was literally killing the church.

There is, I believe, one major exception; well, maybe two: when there has been a major disruption or when upheaval and major change is planned. Workplace trauma - large-scale job cuts for instance, or painful conflicts between staff requiring counselling - may well require careful and sensitive handling after they have happened, or if they are planned. In such scenarios, introducing difficult colleagues into the mix may be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. There is a place for pouring oil on troubled water, rather than banging heads together.

As it happened, the person we employed, Sarah, was on maternity leave within a year. The only applicant for the maternity cover post was… yes, you guessed it, the man we had passed over. The others in the team loved him! He was indeed a breath of fresh air with his rather quirky and scientific approach, but they could handle it. When Sarah came back to work part-time he stayed on. The team has grown stronger and happier as a result - and they would say so themselves.

* Ralph Webster Neighbour, (1973) “The seven last words of the church; or We never tried it that way before” pub. Zondervan Publishing House

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