Quality, Wherefore Art Thou?
The Bottom Line Benefits Of
John Runyan Responds
This is a challenging question for a whole host of reasons. First because of the adversarial relationship that you mention; then because you represent a federal agency with all of the constraints inherent in a governmental context; and finally because you are at the very beginning of building a participative process.
Truthfully, I know of no more difficult organizational task than shifting the mindsets that have traditionally locked management and union leaders in counterproductive conflict.
These factors acknowledged, I can say that I have learned some important lessons in my dealings with labor-management relationships over the past 25 years. These learnings provide me with at least a partial map for what to do in the face of ongoing union-management struggles over participation in workplace decision making and process changes.
First, beginning to move toward a more participative system of operation calls for new understandings between union leaders and managers. To gain new perspectives, union officers and key front-line workers need to come together with executives, key middle managers and front-line supervisors in an initial steering group to break new ground. Specifically, I am advising against the often-tried approach where managers conceive, design and develop change initiatives largely on their own and then hand them to unionists for stamps of approval and execution. Instead, organizational leaders with their union counterparts should jointly select a consultant/educator/ facilitator (or team of such professionals) who specializes in employee involvement approaches. This consultant should then guide the management and union leaders through a discovery process that surfaces the motivations, mental models and deeply-held interests of both sides and then explores the experiences and outcomes of other organizations that have moved down this path before. This joint learning and exploration process facilitated by an acceptably bipartisan facilitator should lay a solid foundation for the work to come.
Second, shifting the traditional patterns of give-and-take calls for creating new forums of exchange between managers and unionists. It is essential to move participatory initiatives out of the usual annual bargaining processes and beyond the often-used "back-channels" of informal give-and-take. This means generating several "thought-and-action" teams to serve as "green-house developers" for conceiving and incubating specific collaborative efforts aimed at increased employee involvement in various sub-parts of your agency. These teams should be chosen by the steering group with the intent to draw on the ideas and experiences of a broad cross section of the organization. In this way, after the initial ground-breaking work, more people are brought into the planning processes - and no one team has to shoulder the entire load of brain-storming, designing and shepherding all the initiatives in a larger organization. These teams should have their own distinctive names, neutral places to meet and at least modest budgets to garner information while sketching out plans for various workplace changes.
As these management-union
"thought-and-action" teams get underway, they need
another form of support. This support consists of
education and assistance to find new language, innovative
working models and open channels for working through
their differences in background, motivation and specific
goals. Even highly motivated people on both sides of the
line can be trapped by the images, mindsets and
debate-oriented language that have developed over many
years. As a result, even these well-intentioned people
can stumble into the ruts of past experience and unmet
People need and want respect. In this
case, respect can best be conveyed by including unionists
and key middle and front-line managers in all phases of
the change process - right from the beginning. At the
same time, it is your individual job as a labor
manager/partner/coordinator to listen for, track with,
punctuate and intervene at key moments when you think
important signals of respect or disrespect are sent and
received in the give-and-take. You can contribute most by
not allowing the early efforts toward collaboration to
run off the rails because of mixed messages or missed
If you can help your management and union leaders to take these first practical steps, and at the same time pay attention to these intangibles that are essential ingredients in a successful change effort, you will have served your organization well.