ORG Blog

Don't Let Honest Mistakes Kill Good Labor Management Relationships


Two stories out of a thousand…

Seeking a more productive relationship to serve their mutual interests, union and company leaders have met and agreed to more pro-actively communicate major decisions ahead of time.  The next day a congratulatory email from a company officer is sent to one factory site congratulating them on the fact that they are about to get work currently being done at another company site – with no communication to the site losing the work or to union leadership, who learn about it from a worker at the benefiting site.  It wasn’t an intentional slight, just an “oops”.

In order to manage some internal issues, the union decides to re-organize its structure and move people around and into new appointments, creating a different interface with company leaders.  They don’t think to tell management ahead of time because it’s internal union business and not strictly required.  It wasn’t an intentional slight, just an “oops.”

Labor-management relationships always run the risk of the Death of a Thousand Oops, or DOTO.   Like the legendary form of punishment known as the “death of a thousand cuts” during which small wounds were continually inflicted until the victim succumbed, seemingly small, honest mistakes from either a union or management can eventually cause relations to turn adversarial.

Ironically this is especially true in the early stages of a positive effort to move out of conflict and into a more cooperative environment.  Truly adversarial environments create so much drama that everything is an oops.  On the other hand, the parties in a mature collaborative relationship have developed habits and trust to the point that oops, when they occur, are handled quickly and don’t erode the good will that has been built over time.  When a union-management relationship is moving between those places, every oops stands out because sincerity and credibility are being tested by all parties.

It is also true of labor-management environments where things are relatively peaceful but whatever productive relationships exist are due to the personal interactions between a handful of people from both sides.  When the positive relationship is reliant on someone remembering to pick up the phone to their counterpart, there are bound to be oops either from themselves or others.  And after too many oops saying “I’m sorry” after the fact calls the question of how seriously the other party values the relationship.

Eliminating oops is a fool’s errand, they will always occur.  It is in the nature of human organizations.  Someone some time will forget to communicate, or think it isn’t necessary.  One side will make a decision that surprises the other.  Someone’s dignity will be violated.  It’s human nature.  The goal is to reduce the number of oops and have a way to heal quickly when they occur.

What’s needed then is not a process to eliminate oops but a way to stop them from becoming DOTO.

Start by creating a regular cadence of joint forums.  Holding a regular joint conversation, say every two weeks, in person or even on a tele-conference does several things to prevent DOTO:

  • If leaders know they are going to be sitting across the table or on the other end of a phone line every two weeks, it tends to help them think pro-actively about upcoming decisions and events and share them ahead of time.

  • Leaders will begin to fine-tune their understanding of how decisions and communication may effect or be perceived by the other side.

  • Leaders may become more disposed to pre-decisional involvement from the other side.

  • When there is an oops, if the forums are frequent and consistent enough, there will be an opportunity for early mea culpas, forgiveness and damage control.  People will learn that most oops are unintentional.

  • Over time a “bank of good will” is built up so that when an oops occurs leaders are willing to give the other side the benefit of the doubt.

  • Tight trust loops are built because leaders are able to commit to one another, act accordingly, and pay attention to those commitments in a short enough time frame that sincerity is evident.

  • If there are individuals on either side who are skeptical or wary of cooperative behavior, they will see they will see that it is entirely possible without violating either management rights or collective bargaining rights.

  • And, oddly enough, in the early stages of developing a cooperative relationship, the action taken to correct an oops may do more to build belief in the relationship than if the oops had never happened.

Along with a regularly held joint forum, there is a second key ingredient to the DOTO prevention process.  That ingredient is an agreement between the union and company leaders about what will happen when, inevitably an oops does occur.  What’s the healthiest protocol for addressing the oops?  Who calls who?  How is a recovery plan developed and implemented?  Is there an agreed upon cooling off period if needed?  This agreement should be one of the ground rules established when the joint forums begin.

If your labor-management relations seem to be going okay, don’t take it for granted.  If you don’t have a structured, consistent cadence of sitting down with leaders from the company or union side to share what’s going on and what’s coming up, start one.  It won’t eliminate all the oops, but it will prevent many, it will allow clean-up after, and it will go a long way to demonstrate that generally everyone, from their particular viewpoint, has everyone’s best interest at heart.

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Marc Bridgham is a member of the Consulting Consortium at Overland Resource Group and President/CEO of The Triskelion Group. Founded in 2002, The Triskelion Group focuses on deliberately and effectively igniting the combined forces of Commitment, Creativity and Community that live within any organization, and aligning those forces to achieve rapid and dramatic improvement in business results. Marc can be reached at Please add your comments about good labor management relationships and avoiding the Death of a 1,000 "Oops". We would love to hear your opinions.


Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Leadership Sustainable Change