Do you hear that great sigh? It’s one of relief that this epic presidential campaign is finally behind us. But that doesn’t mean an end to the power struggles and strife between and among the Executive and Legislative branches. After such a close and rancorous race, our country is more divided than ever. This does not bode well for the impending financial crisis that the December 31 “fiscal cliff” and the January 2 sequestration are predicted to ignite.
So, while both presidential candidates called for more “reaching across the aisle” in their final campaign speeches, and congressional leaders from both parties are wanly hinting at compromise, the American public is understandably cynical and concerned. Even if a stop-gap measure is enacted to delay or defuse the financial crisis, we still have critical unemployment levels and the need for better, higher quality jobs in this country.
How can our elected leaders in Washington overcome polarization to get to solutions? They can rip a page from the playbook of some labor and management organizations that have overcome long-standing bitterness and recrimination. Through training, tools and structured processes, union and management leaders have employed collaborative approaches and established cultures of involvement that have succeeded in both protecting and creating jobs here in America.
What has worked in these organizations can work in Congress, too. Private and public sector organizations have learned the hard way the critical need for collaborative skills. Labor leaders who refuse to engage on issues central to their organizations’ economic viability put their members’ jobs at stake. Conversely, the leaders of failing enterprises and agencies can’t honor their commitments to employees, retirees or other stakeholders. Unlike unhappily married couples, unions and management can’t get divorced. Their fates are indelibly tethered.
The alternative, as many labor and management organizations have learned, is to pull up to the collaborative table and swallow what, in some cases, amounts to years of distrust, ill will, and adversarial relations in exchange for respectful, interest-based relationships focused on winning the bigger prize: long-term viability.
How does this work? Let’s look at an example right in the backyard of the president and the divided Congress: the Federal Aviation Administration and its newfound collaborative relationships with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) and Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) unions. Just three short years ago, the parties were lodging charges of unfair labor practices against one another. News headlines frequently featured charges that under-staffing was threatening the safety of the flying public. Collective bargaining agreements were held in abeyance over litigious wrangling or Congressional imposition.
Today, labor and management leaders have learned skills in interest-based leadership, communications and conflict resolution. And they have successfully implemented collaborative processes that encourage employees to work together to make procedural, technological and airspace improvements at facilities across the country. Issues like operational performance, technical training and personnel safety are now dealt with through proactive dialogue and team-based problem solving. And the goodness gleaned from learning to work collaboratively does spill over to positively impact traditional LR processes as well. Recently, the FAA and PASS union reached an historic milestone when employees represented by PASS ratified – by 84% –the first collective bargaining agreement reached through interest-based negotiations.
This “collaborative culture” has proven contagious, as evidenced by a regional partnership of the FAA, NATCA, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and Atlanta and Charlotte-area airports, which are working together to make air traffic control more efficient, to help airlines improve on-time performance, and to reduce aircraft emissions. The FAA estimates the more efficient routes created through this collaborative partnership will equate to 6.6 million fewer gallons of fuel, and a reduction of 65,000 metric tons of carbon emissions each year. For US Airways, optimizing the airspace at its largest hub in Charlotte will translate into fuel savings of $17 million annually.
This is just one example of what happens when even unlike-minded leaders from management and labor are able to employ collaborative communications, conflict resolution and leadership skills to effectively address controversial issues and advance toward common goals.
Progress begins with the leadership of both sides identifying common goals and acknowledging their interdependence, then learning the skills necessary to make mutually beneficial decisions and to lead their members toward accepting these for the good of the whole enterprise. Substitute “constituencies” for members and “country” for enterprise, and it’s possible to imagine a solution to the current gridlock in Congress. With the swearing in of nearly 80 new members in January, it’s a good time to introduce collaboration training into the freshmen orientation program. As these approaches and behaviors begin to supplant those of the currently entrenched and unyielding party leaders, we may finally see real “reaching across the aisle” and progress toward job creation and sustainable economic prosperity.
Join the conversation! What else could Congress learn from collaborative success stories? Where else might they find parallels to “reaching across the aisle” in real practice instead of empty rhetoric?