Oswald Letter

Management and Employees Shouldn’t Be Enemies

The other day a colleague brought a recent New York Times article to my attention. The headline read, “A Once-Defiant U.A.W. Local Now Focuses on G.M.’s Success.” Excuse my naivete, but why wouldn’t the employees of a company always have been focused on the company’s success? Is there ever an excuse for an employee not to make his or her best effort on the company’s behalf in order to help it succeed? Is there ever a reason for employees to knowingly and willingly sabotage the company that they work for and are paid by?

Let me provide more of the story. The U.A.W. local covered by the story was in Lordstown, Ohio. According to the New York Times, “In the 1970s, the factory’s 7,000 workers were so bitter toward management that thousands of Chevrolet Vegas rolled off the assembly line with slit upholstery and other damage . . . and the term ‘Lordstown syndrome’ become shorthand to describe rebellious American factory workers.”

This was all news to me. I guess that I wasn’t too focused on employer/employee relations during my adolescence. But to read that employees would intentionally sabotage their company’s products was mind-boggling to me. I’m sure the employees thought they were punishing the company for certain misdeeds, either real or perceived, but it amazes me that it didn’t occur to them that they were actually hurting themselves.

Send out a defective product or cause your company to spend additional money to repair intentional damage, thus reducing profit margins, and the end result will be job losses. Either the company will lose its customers because they will refuse to purchase a defective product, or it won’t make enough money to continue to employ everyone. Either way jobs will be lost. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face!

Now, according to the shop chairman for the Lordstown U.A.W. Local 112 Ben Strickland, “We’ve got 3,000 lives to worry about. The cockiness and the arrogance that we once portrayed — we definitely got a lot more humble.” Jim Graham, president of Local 112, adds, “Everyone has come to the realization that management is not the enemy, and the union is not the enemy. The enemy is the foreign competition.  We’re working much, much better with management than we ever have.”

It’s about time. After nearly 30 years, the loss of almost 75% of the jobs at the facility, and the company’s bankruptcy, the employees became more humble and management figured out that their own employees weren’t the enemy. Let’s hope they didn’t come to that realization too late for GM.

I tell this story only because it continually amazes me that employees and management don’t realize they’re on the same side. I know that there are companies where the two sides are pitted against each other instead of working together. The companies where this exists will never be successful in the long term. Everyone in the organization must be on the same page to succeed.

Here are the two biggest causes of rifts between employees and management that will end in disaster if not fixed:

1. Management arrogance. Much too often, I see members of senior management act like they’re better than rank-and-file employees. Individuals are promoted to the executive level and suddenly begin to act like they’re above everyone else in the organization. They expect to be held in high regard, look for special perks, and treat others like they’re indentured servants. Compensation packages are so slanted to senior management that resentment is inevitable. The concept of fairness is nonexistent.

The Simple Fix: Treat everyone with respect. Every function in an organization is critical to its success. If it weren’t, someone wouldn’t be paid to do it. Recognize that everyone in the organization is important. With authority comes responsibility, not privilege. Make sure your compensation structure creates an atmosphere of cooperation, not separation.

2. Employee ignorance. Hold on. I don’t mean that employees are stupid. I’m talking about their failure to understand what the organization’s goals are and what drives success. This can be the the fault of employees, those who just want to put in their hours and collect a paycheck, but it’s more likely a shortcoming of management.

The Simple Fix: Communicate with employees. Let them know what the organization’s goals are and then keep them up to date on your progress toward those goals. Teach them what the key drivers of your business are, and report to them how you’re doing in those areas. Employees care about how the business is doing if they feel like they’re sharing in the successes and failures. Bring them inside the tent and make them true partners in the organization’s success. Their jobs depend on it.

Many lessons can be learned by what has transpired at the GM facility in Lordstown. The most important one is that if employees and management don’t have a shared vision for the business and can’t work together toward that end, it’s going to be a bad situation for everyone. But in companies where employees and management are cooperating like the partners they truly are, where there’s a culture of respect and fairness and clearly communicated goals, the likelihood of success is greatly enhanced.