ORG Blog

Being in Tune: Collaboration Fosters Employee Satisfaction


music photo for marc blog

I was asked recently if a shift toward labor-management collaboration and away from traditional adversarial relationships had any impact on employee satisfaction.  I can't quote statistics, though I'm off on that hunt, but I do have some observations based on 20-plus years of working on joint labor-management efforts and on my 30-plus years as a musician.

Represented employees have two sets of leaders; two sets of voices to listen to.  The management voice speaks for the good of the enterprise above all; and the health of the enterprise is vital to the well-being of the employee.  The union voice speaks to the rights and well-being of the employee first.   The degree of alignment between these two voices is like tuning two guitar strings to each other.  The further out of tune they are, the more dissonant the vibrations they produce; the ear literally doesn't know which note to listen to.  The more in tune they become, the less jarring the vibration and the more the ear can relax and be ready to work.

In the workplace, when the voices of management and labor are discordant, employees are naturally conflicted. They don't know which voice to listen to:

  • "Which voice is more trustworthy?"
  • "What is the risk of believing one voice over another?"
  • "Who truly has my best interest at heart?"
  • “Which voice deserves my loyalty the most?”
  • "What are the hidden agendas?" And most importantly,
  • "What do I do now?"

Conversely, when both parties collaborate and communicate based on earned trust, then people feel safer and more satisfied that their contributions matter, and will be recognized. When people aren't forced to spend their energy choosing sides then that energy is far more available for engaging in the good of the joint enterprise.

A powerful example I have seen is when companies have attempted to implement total quality programs (Lean, Six Sigma, etc.) without partnering with their unions, thinking that it's a company initiative and well, they can just do it. The unions, in the meantime have communicated suspicion and attributed ulterior motives to the effort, e.g., "If you help them improve things, it is a way for them to need fewer workers." This leads to inner (and often to outer) conflict for the worker.

If the company and union find a mutually agreeable path to quality improvement, workers get a double-positive shot of satisfaction. First, they can contribute in the knowledge that the program has been built and vetted in a way that is satisfactory to both sets of leaders; and second, they get a sense of feeling heard as they see their suggestions for improving processes and working conditions actually get implemented.

Another example I’ve orchestrated in my work with Overland Resource Group in the aviation sector illustrates that when labor and management leaders are on the same sheet of music, they can break entrenched adversarial patterns on even the most contentious of issues, including a hot button topic like staffing levels.  When it comes to staffing, natural tension exists between the company trying to be as efficient or as productive as possible (aka,  "doing the most with the fewest") and the union trying to maximize jobs and hours (aka,  "doing what's best for our membership.")  Solutions are seldom singular, either/or, or black and white. They usually involve creative alternatives and trade-offs.   In many instances, we have facilitated interest-based dialogue between labor and management leaders that enabled them to realize a win-win: by altering the shifts employees were working, management secured the efficiency it needed AND improved customer experience. This eliminated a perceived need to reduce headcount, and enabled the union to realize its interest in saving jobs.   Even when a complete win-win wasn't achieved, people left the process understanding the business case on both sides and satisfied that they'd had an opportunity to influence the outcome,

Tuning these voices is not easy.  Leaders on both sides walk a razor's edge tension between standing firm for their desired outcome while being open to understanding the other parties’ needs. In the middle of that natural tension lies a sweet spot that requires skill in group problem-solving, business understanding, and interest-based leadership. The pay-off for accepting the challenge is that the harmony created helps the entire "orchestra" of stake-holders give their best performance.

By Marc Bridgham

Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Sustainable Change