The following blog appeared in the January 9 edition of The Hill, a congressional newspaper that publishes daily when Congress is in session, and was also included in its Congress blog.
As the 112th Congress winds down to a dismal close, it passes on an increasingly infuriating legacy inherited from past Democrat and Republican House and Senate members: the inability to work together to solve our country’s grave problems.
It has become a cliché’ to hearken back to the days of President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, who, despite polar-opposite ideologies, managed to hammer out legislative and fiscal compromises that delivered America from major crises. As the recent fiscal cliff debacle demonstrated, no such desire or ability exists today. Yet, despite seething frustration among current political leaders and the public’s record-low confidence in them, little has been proposed to reverse this 20+ year trajectory. Attempts to “throw the bums out” and to bring in new Administrations and Congresses have yielded nothing no better leadership or governance, leading many to wonder what needs to be done to save the American democratic model and its free enterprise system?
This is a question that our nation’s senior management and labor leaders – who often represent polar-opposite ideologies -- have faced when seemingly intractable differences have threatened the viability of their enterprises. Those who have succeeded invariably credit training and structured processes that enabled them to learn and practice collaborative behaviors. Through intense collaborative leadership training, they learned how to identify and articulate interests rather than positions; to effectively broach “undiscussable” topics and issues; and to recognize conflicts as healthy opportunities for dialogue, instead of hot-button would-be arguments to be avoided at all costs. As a result, they were able to identify common goals and to find innovative solutions to obstacles. Countless examples of management-labor collaborative successes exist today in healthcare, major manufacturing and even government agencies:
- Kaiser-Permanente has what is heralded as the nation’s longest-running, most productive labor-management partnership—and that in the health-care sector, which is fraught with the challenges of a robust competitive environment; government intervention; dictates from the insurance industry; and seemingly endless would-be attempts to completely overhaul the healthcare system as a whole.
- Labor and management leaders at Boeing—Philly, home of the V-22 and Chinook helicopters, herald their collaborative process as the basis both for a turn-around begun 15 years ago that saved the facilities from being shuttered and the current employee engagement process that routinely returns unprecedented cost, quality and productivity results.
- In three short years, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union have transformed what many would say was the worst labor-management environment in the federal sector into a model of collaboration. Employees, managers and union reps now work together on procedural, technological and air-space related issues that improve the safety and efficiency of the national air space.
As the new members of the 113th Congress continue their Freshman Orientation, in addition to what they’re learning about office administration and federal policies, all should be required to enroll in collaboration training. It may take several sessions before any of these freshmen attain positions of leadership in the House or Senate, but their influence would be felt immediately in how they interact with other members and how they voice their opinions to the public. Even a slight shift from the current name-calling and hyper-partisan demagoguery to mutually respectful and inclusive language would provide encouragement that our political leaders can one day return to working together for the good of our country.
If labor and management leaders can learn to set aside their differences to focus on their shared interests of keeping U.S. citizens working in productive, successful organizations, then surely our elected leaders can learn to reach across the aisle to save our country from the current host of ills that threaten the American way of life.