Retaining influence on employees [in spite of unions]!
I was invited to address the HR Meet of a very reputed company. The audience comprised senior managers. One of them asked me, "How can we not have a union at the workplace?" My answer began with a rather rude statement, I am not proud of it, but yet let me state it. "If we ask wrong questions we get wrong answers.” I then explained that the real issue was “How to retain influence over our employees in spite of unions."
There are many ways to do it, but every organisation must find its own way. This issue gains more importance because of two developments – firstly, no organisation can afford IR strife in today’s world, however small it is, and secondly, the possibility for alignment of minds is higher today than ever before.
How have industries responded to this challenge?
Let us take the latest example first. At an ITC factory in Nepal [Surya Nepal P Ltd.] all managers and employees assembled in one room after preparations for two days. They did a group exercise – ‘WorldCafe.’ The preparatory two days were spent with a group of managers and then with other employees preparing for the third day. On the third day all engaged in developing a common answer to a single question: What kind of work culture should we develop in that factory? And how?
This question became important because the factory was a new factory, machines were still being set up and it was yet to begin production which was scheduled about two months later. The MD also shared his thoughts.
This is an outstanding case of proactive industrial relations. This is how the relationships must be promoted in this millennium. The effort is to be lauded because it is very democratic effort, and it is a proactive effort in aligning minds at such an early stage.
Another sustained effort was by Asian Paints and I am proud of my association with it. Asian Paints published a magazine “Tutari” at its Bhandup factory, exclusively for workers’ education.
Why would a business organisation publish a magazine for workers’ education? Because the stated belief was that a well-informed worker will make the right choices. And in order to be well-informed he must be aware not just of business realities but also social and political issues which provide the context for various decisions of the management and the union alike. This magazine was published from 1970 till early 2014 when the Bhandup factory was finally closed.
The magazine carried articles on labour law amendments and various contemporary industrial relations issues. It also carried very innovative stories like the NUMMI plant of Toyota, The case of Fawley productivity agreements, even an article on the Supreme Court’s judgement on obscenity in the case of a novel called ‘Shama’ written by Chandrakant Kakodkar. When Hindustan Lever has a strike at their Sewri Factory, both management and union published voluminous propaganda material. We compiled it and presented it to the workers as a complete case study which emphasised that such extreme situations arise when both the parties are change averse.
While talking about Influencing employees I must also mention the effort of Larsen and Toubro with great appreciation.
Sometime in seventies [or was it early eighties?] inter union rivalry shook not just L&T but the entire city of Mumbai. The inter-union rivalry took a very violent turn one day and it led to death of four employees of L&T while they were about to board the company bus. The editor of L&T’s house magazine ‘Powai Pageant’ took a very bold step by publishing their photographs on the front page and a headline asking readers ‘Should this have happened?’. A bold step considering that fear charged atmosphere prevailed there – in such a case people avoid discussion of such an event or do it in a hush-hush way in very small groups in canteen. Confronting readers with stark and uncomfortable reality was a small but effective step in shaping opinions.
I am not talking about the skills of influencing. I am talking about how imaginatively we can align minds, and that it can be done with through spontaneity and systematic working.
Books on Organisational Behaviour tell us that when you trust somebody you are making yourself vulnerable. Perhaps this could be one of the reasons why we do not trust people easily.
It is quite common for people in Mumbai to leave their house keys with neighbours. The maid collects it from them and cleans the house, sometimes makes their dinner ready. The situation is such in which people make themselves very vulnerable to theft, but it rarely happens. This example tells us about vulnerability, but it also tells us that trusting others is an inevitable part of working together. In many instances this is done out of necessity. Building trust proactively shows a very different mindset, and perhaps an evolved philosophy of managing people.
Mr Rajesh Shah, MD of Arihant Industrial Corporation has taken proactive steps in building trust. One of them is that if an employee is hospitalised, a staff member visits him immediately and hands over Rupees Fifty Thousand. The staff is instructed not to wait for sanctions and bureaucratic procedures, they are asked to do it without delay. They do not look up the sick person’s attendance record, or loan outstanding or any such information.
While many organisations create systems and procedures to provide sickness benefits by providing insurance covers, none matches the trust building potential of Arihant’s action. Why? Perhaps because employees also realise that the action of handing over Rupees Fifty Thousand without any question or condition makes Arihant vulnerable, unlike coverage by insurance.
There are many instances when employees have trusted organisations. In Arihant itself employees undertook a pay cut when the going was not good. [When the financial status improved Arihant paid back all of them]. Arihant Industrial Corporation is an SME which faced big ups and downs in the business in the early part of their journey. What made employees of Arihant whose income was nothing to boast about take this unusual step?
At Pune another SME called Vanaz Engineers Ltd. has such credentials in building trust that we should write a case study on it. Vanaz was in deep financial crisis and no bank would give it a loan. So a few hundred workers obtained personal loans from co-operative banks and handed over the money to Vanaz to run the company.
I am not talking just about building trust. I am talking about unusual decisions made spontaneously yet thoughtfully on a difficult path, yet based on cherished values and in-spite of personal risks.
Our title was ‘Innovative Practices in Employee Relations.’ Let us understand the words first:
Innovative means ‘introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking.’ Practice means ‘the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing of something.’ So actually, the phrase ‘Innovative Practices’ is an oxymoron!
The verb ‘relate’ means ‘to feel empathy or identify with.’ And the word ‘relationship’ means ‘the mutual feelings that exist between two parties.’
Now try following a practice to foster relationship. Try telling your wife ‘I love you’ every morning, for instance. It will feel nice initially, then it will not be noticed and if you continue to do it, there will be enough occasions when it will be disbelieved!
I would submit that building relations has much to do with spontaneity and a response tailor made for that occasion, which means the response must be different on every occasion. Yet it must be based on sound values like trust. The prerequisite for this is confidence in one’s own abilities and not so much as the character of the other party.
And finally I would present this statement by Milton Mayeroff. It is my favourite one:
“Through caring for certain others, by serving them through caring, a man lives the meaning of his own life. In the sense in which a man can ever be said to be at home in the world, he is at home not through dominating, or explaining, or appreciating, but through caring and being cared for.”
True caring comes when you understand feelings, more so when both the parties involved understand feelings. And relationships whether with individuals or groups are all about empathy and feelings.
Relationships are of different kinds. As Osho says
‘Relationship may be just out of fear….. Relationship may be just a kind of security – financial or something else. ….. Relationship is a substitute.
And he goes on to say “Relationship is beautiful because it is a mirror. But there are stupid people – they see their face in the mirror and they see it is ugly so they destroy the mirror. The logic is apparent: this mirror is making them ugly, so destroy the mirror and then they are beautiful.”
Relationship is a mirror, it mirrors our persona. It tells people what we stand for and what we do not stand for. It tells people whether we are timid or strong. It tells people whether we are men of conviction and beliefs. And it tells people whether we are sincere in building relationship – with groups and with individuals.