Last week, Senator Jon Tester from Montana was on NPR telling about his new book. He has some things to say about the division that is occurring in this country and how it is hurting the democratic process. He also has some ideas on how to overcome it and it sounds very similar to what we say during our trainings with labor and management.
It makes sense that it’s very similar because it really comes down to leadership skills and the need to relate to other members, either in Congress or labor-management, and to constituents. Both must have the communication skills to be willing to learn about the issues and be willing to help with resolution as well as to explain decisions.
One of the most important communication tools leaders need to demonstrate is listening. Tester says too many of his colleagues talk to constituents but they don’t LISTEN to them. We encourage labor and management groups or any leadership group to listen not just hear what people say because there is a big difference. Listening is more about concentrating on what’s being said and understanding it. Hearing is more about in one ear and out the other. Asking questions and listening allows leaders the opportunity to get more information which is important if you are a labor person, a management person or politician. It’s about getting those thoughts and experiences from constituents and that is particularly important when solving problems. It’s also about learning which is something all leaders need to do.
The same is true when group members must listen to each other as they share their thoughts, perspectives and ideas. We encourage decision-making through consensus instead of voting because voting creates a win-lose scenario. We want a scenario that everyone can support. Most people think that’s impossible but it’s not when you have people committed to resolving issues. It does require some time and LISTENING because of the different perspectives, opinions and ideas which help to provide a much better outcome for problem solving.
Another similar problem is what Tester mentions as people being “pigeon-holed”. In other words, people are stereotyped. This also happens in labor-management or in other groups. People sometimes assume somebody will say something or do something a certain way based on who they are or gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age and so on. Stereotyping or making assumptions about people can hurt relations and hurt problem solving. Pre-conceived ideas limit people from learning about each other and coming up with new ideas.
There are a couple of exercises we do with groups to help them overcome stereotypes. One is a personality style assessment which helps them learn all personality styles bring something to the group even if it’s different from their own. Another one is a brainstorming technique called round-robin. It’s getting one idea from a person at a time until all ideas are given. Sometimes putting a face with an idea can be a surprise, not something we expected or assumed. By doing both of these as well as other techniques, it can allow new and different ideas and provide relationship building. The techniques may not be the best for politicians but spending time asking questions and listening can help prevent “pigeon-holing” or stereotyping from occurring.
Senator Tester also made another very important comment when he said we have more in common than we think. It’s important to remember Senator Tester is speaking about political divisions but it’s also true about labor and management. For some groups that’s initially hard for them to understand but when we ask both sides if they agree workplace safety and job security are important and they both respond with “yes, ” they begin to see it’s possible.
By focusing on the areas that are in common first, it helps to resolve not only those issues but it then helps to resolve the areas where there may not be as much in common. For example, we worked with a group that worked on a very difficult issue for both sides. It was about layoffs and they had to find an alternative to them. Management said it was getting more difficult to do jobs with less staff. For Labor, layoffs is not something they want. So for both, they had a common interest in eliminating layoffs. Maybe they looked at it from different perspectives but it did provide them with some commonality. It took some very deep discussions and they again focused on other areas of mutual interest and concern. After a year of working on this tough subject, they came up with something that avoided layoffs. They came up with a voluntary furlough plan. At first it was meant with some skepticism but eventually caught on and provided good savings for the organization.
Not all problems are as difficult as that one but it does emphasize both labor and management can solve problems when they focus on what they have in common just as Senator Tester said. One of the things they did was something we said before is necessary and that was gathering information. They contacted other workplaces. They also asked constituents for their input and ideas. Usually, getting as much information as possible can really help groups come together. It’s much easier to solve problems based on facts then suppositions.
Senator Tester isn’t the first senator to be concerned about maintaining democracy. Many years ago, another senator, Robert F. Wagner, was concerned about democracy being maintained in this country because he saw the erosion of it in the country where his family immigrated from. We’ve blogged about this before but Wagner wanted workers to have a voice in the workplace so they would have a better understanding of how democracy works and hopefully maintain it in communities and the country. He provided the framework for workplace democracy to take place. Now, Senator Tester is describing the necessary leadership skills politicians must display to maintain democracy, and, they are the same skills used by workplace leaders to create a democratic workplace Senator Wagner envisioned. If labor and management can demonstrate these skills and a member of Congress is saying the same skills are necessary, it has a chance of transfering to communities… and maybe politicians.