When a workplace decides to change its culture that allows for worker voice, it’s more than a change of the environment. It’s about leadership changes, and that includes leaders having to change themselves. Culture change is not an easy process. Just talking about the need and wanting the change isn’t enough. It’s about walking the talk. Before leaders decide or talk about culture change, especially when it’s about worker voice, they need to think long and hard what it will mean for them.
Leaders need to have a vision of what they expect the workplace should be about. That vision also needs to include what role they will play as leaders, and, as they consider that, they need to examine themselves for any changes or adaptations they will have to make.
For some leaders, this will mean a change in philosophical style. Instead of being the sole decision-maker, worker voice environments mean decisions are pushed down and leaders provide more of a support role. The book, Zapp! by William Byham, demonstrates how roles change through the story of two managers, one of them being in a controlling role and the other in a supporting role. It shows what leaders need to think about and do with their own styles when making a culture shift.
Examining leadership roles isn’t limited to just the management side. Union leaders, too, have to think how their role will change in a worker voice environment. For unions, this could mean changing attitudes or acquiring additional responsibilities that they may not have considered. We’ve seen leaders from both sides struggle with changing roles in different ways. It depended on the workplace or the issues or the relationship. Sometimes it also was about what they were accustomed to.
In a very basic example, involving the foundation pieces of a group, the manager of a facility took the lead on the ground rules and the mission statement the group was working on. Instead of allowing more inclusion, the manager dominated the process which had been a normal role in the past. The problem with that is it led to more skepticism and distrust of the culture change process, and, as long as that happens, it prolongs or stops any change from taking effect. In a worker voice culture, the manager still has a voice, too, which needs to be valued, but they don’t dominate and need to let others speak first. Changing habits and styles takes some work and leaders need to realize it. Also, mistakes will happen along the way. New ways of doing things don’t happen overnight.
In another situation, union leaders struggled early in a new process because their labor-management group was working on a very sensitive issue to unions and that was about subcontracting work they normally did. Unions are concerned subcontracting, or contracting out, takes jobs away from members, so for this union it caused them to reconsider their partnership role. They had to decide if it was something they wanted to do. It took some heartfelt discussions but, in the end, they decided it was best to continue. The management side changed too by sharing a lot of financial information so the group could come up with a good decision. The entire process took some time. Patience, which is necessary when changing culture, helped both sides come up with a decision they could support. They agreed to the subcontracting as long as nobody lost their job. That took a strong level of trust from the union side but because of that patience, it also helped both sides to learn and grow. That made a big difference in their culture change.
Difficult decisions like the subcontracting can be a risk and, while the subcontracting issue worked out, that doesn’t always happen. Some decisions can fail. Some leaders don’t like failure but it does happen to them just like it does to anybody. It can be a humbling moment but it can be a teachable moment, too. This is a time leaders need to be a coach. Leaders need to help others understand what went wrong and how to correct them.
In a worker voice environment, communication by leaders is different. More time is spent listening instead of telling or directing. Leaders need to listen to the ideas of others. It also includes sharing information to help with good decision making. For some leaders, this is hard because they don’t want to take the time to communicate. Other leaders may want to keep information to themselves because it provides power so they’re unwilling to share. Interacting with staff or members is absolutely necessary to develop camaraderie and to let them know they’re valued.
One of the leaders of grocery store chain in the eastern part of the U. S., Arthur T. DeMoulas, loves interacting with employees and customers. We have blogged about his leadership style before. When Artie T., as he is called, was in danger of losing the grocery chain to his cousin, his non-union employees did a major work stoppage. It included not just those on the floor but upper management people, too. Artie T. is known for walking in his grocery stores and asking employees about specific family members. He knows them and the family member by name. His philosophy has been, “We all work together.” That’s the type of philosophy and interaction leaders need to have for a worker voice environment.
Union leaders, too, have a task in front of them when it comes to communication. Many unions struggle with communication to members. Trying to get members to meetings and involved in union activities is a key element of union leadership. Doing things the same old way, living in a paradigm, does not help leadership. Union leaders, too, can benefit from a participative style. The same tools and practices that work for worker voice can work for them.
This blog has laid out some things for leaders to consider if they want to change the culture in their workplace. We applaud anybody for wanting to do it but we also applaud those who realize it may be too difficult to do. That may be okay but it’s also not good to wait until the time is right. Things can happen. Relationships get torn apart. That doesn’t help anybody or the organization.
One of our colleagues told us about an experience with a labor-management group. The group had a horrible history which included a strike that resulted in our colleague helping the group after the strike was over. It was difficult bringing them together until the owner apologized once he heard the stories from workers about their work experiences and how they and their families were impacted by those experiences. It turned the relationship around. Don’t wait, though, until things get that bad. Saying sorry is very hard to do.