There is an old saying that applies to labor-management relationships and employee engagement: “It’s OK to dance with a bear, but you can’t stop until the bear is ready to stop.”
It is great if you want to build a cooperative labor management relationship. Involving everyone in the workforce will pay tremendous benefits to your organization. However, you have to realize that you must be committed to the process for the long haul. If not, the damage that can result will hurt your organization.
At Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee we have seen organizations repair severely damaged relationships. Others have completely changed the culture in the organization. Neither is easy to accomplish and definitely are not quick.
One of the things that concerns us is when we see a group that says they want to change their relationship, but wants to do as little as possible. They may try to disguise it with nods of support and nice words, but the other side quickly sees through the façade. The result will be increasing distrust and a process that produces the exact opposite of what was intended.
Disaster can also result if one group only pretends to be interested, with the full intention of doing nothing or working to block progress. They may hope that everyone on the other side will lose interest and go away. They will demonstrate an unwillingness to relinquish control over the issues being discussed. We have seen groups use absurd excuses for blocking actions, such as stopping communications from a labor-management committee because of the color of the paper they planned to use. Actions like these only demonstrate the unreasonableness of the parties engaging in this technique. It shows there is no interest in fixing problems, and will likely damage the relationship between the parties now and in the future.
Sometimes we see situations in which one or both groups are watching carefully, waiting for the other side to make a mistake. Whether the error is intentional or not, it is as if they rise up from the marshes and announce, “I caught you. I knew you wouldn’t do this.” Once again, distrust cripples the cooperative process.
Other organizations show some commitment, but it becomes clear it is very shallow. They hope if they seem committed and do some things with the other side, they hope everyone will be satisfied and things can return to normal. They fail to recognize engagement is a long-term process, and will not disappear when they choose.
Damage will also occur if groups working on employee engagement are allowed to work only on trivial issues. They may be told they would not understand more complex problems or be able to see “the big picture.” These condescending attitudes will prevent the group from dealing with real issues in the or4ganization and ensure the employee-management relationship will remain broken.
In each of these instances we have observed, one group forgot they could not stop dancing with the bear until the bear was ready to stop. Just like with the bear, the damage to the organization and individuals can be significant. They needed to remember cooperation and engagement are joint processes that take time and effort. Failure to put in both will result in the failure of the process and continuing damage in the future.