EMPLOYMENT TODAY: February 1997 issue                        back to articles menu

Exorcising Team Spirit

In my workshops I frequently come across the Trust issue. When working with Management teams, the issue seems to be one of 'doubt of the subordinate's competence', or a disbelief that Employees are capable of having the same passion, or commitment, that Management have. When working with Employee teams, one often hears the comment "I wish Management were here so they could hear this", or worse, "Pity Management weren't receiving this training too..."

In some organisations that are well established and where both Employees and Management have significant length-of-service within the Organisation, distrust is often deep-seated and has been there so long it is in fact a part of the culture. This is particularly true of organisations that have come through the 60's, 70's and 80's and where there is a strong Union influence on-site. The Union Vs the Employer fight has gone on for so long that, even though this partisan environment has changed dramatically since the advent in NZ of the Employment Contracts Act, many of these long-serving managers, Union officials & employees appear to be unable to break with the past, or even accept that change is possible.

It would appear that the struggle is on for both young Management and young Union executives to grow and develop without being 'infected' by the attitudes of some of their seniors. The passage of time will of course assist as these senior people retire.....

It never ceases to amaze me, the difference in 'atmosphere' that I experience when working with some of these older companies on one day, and then working with a younger organisation the next day. I am not for a minute suggesting that all older organisations have this problem - I have recently worked with an 'older' organisation where we trained the Management in Negotiating Employment Contracts, and then the company paid for the Staff Representatives on-site to be trained by us in exactly the same content. The feeling of Management was that they wanted a robust, long-term contract, and that this would only come about by creating an equity in terms of knowledge and skill on both sides of the negotiating table. Risky? Inviting trouble? It turned out not to be so. Staff returned the investment by bargaining hard, but not disruptively so. Negotiations that used to take 5 or 6 months, accompanied by industrial action, this time were over in a month with no industrial action.

In the above case, Management learned that Staff could be trusted to act reasonably where the Management demonstrated reasonableness in the first instance, that they could begin to create an element of trust by communicating effectively and often, and that by paying for the education of staff they in fact made their own task easier. It is asking too much to expect Staff to place the Organisation's welfare ahead of their own (and therefore their family), but we did achieve an acceptance by Staff that the survival of the Organisation was directly linked to their own welfare.

The staff have learned that Management could be trusted to consistently act with the Organisations interests as a first concern but that Management were fully aware that the Organisation only survived as long as it had an effective Staff. Both sides were 'empowered', if you'll forgive the use of that buzz-word.

The fact that there was no Union involvement (the Staff appointed Bargaining Agents from among their own ranks creating their own Staff Council, as permitted by the ECA) could be seen by some as a critical factor, but it needs to be said that most Unions in NZ have done a house-cleaning exercise since the ECA came into being and have survived in a deregulated environment by offering a high level of customer service to their membership, and are more prepared to negotiate than ever before.

As an example of a complete LACK of trust, I once took on an assignment with a very mature Organisation, a division of a much larger group. I was asked by the then recently-appointed General Manager to take the Supervisor group (8 persons) through a series of formal training sessions. With one or two exceptions, these Supervisors had been with the company since it's formation in 1960, some 30 years prior. The GM reported that there was a problem with this group, that they were uncommunicative & unresponsive. New initiatives such as ISO9000 seemed to penetrate only as far as this group, then foundered.

From the start, it was a disaster. The Supervisors were ‘directed’ to attend, and were not counselled or consulted prior to. It took two hours of using every trick in the book to get much response at all, and then it was only to release such a torrent of group bitterness directed at management on-site and in fact any management anywhere in the world, living or dead, that I started to feel a bit like the Priest in the film 'The Exorcist'.

To cut a long story short, after 3 such sessions I could report that we had succeeded only in lancing the boil and that we had a big task ahead of us. For the first time, feelings were out in the open. The facts are that the company had changed ownership 8 times in the last 15 years. Each time, the company was purchased by a large corporate group, who used it to 'blood' new or up-coming senior management. Thus the Supervisor group had been subjected to a seemingly never-ending succession of new owners, and (to use their words) 'wet behind the ears young yuppies' arriving seemingly every year or so, who only stayed at most one year.

Not surprisingly, the Supervisors banded together years ago for self-protection, and have developed a highly-sophisticated system whereby any new Management initiative is, on the surface, received with much enthusiasm and support from the Supervisors. This new initiative is then quietly 'knobbled' - a kick here, a slashed tendon there - until it falls lifeless, a failure. The Supervisors then advise Management that they knew all along it wouldn't work, and that Management should really 'leave the real running of the place to us - after all, we've been doing it for thirty years....', with the unspoken addition "and you're only here for another few months anyway".

In their place, can you really blame them?

In the end, Management chose not to continue with Supervisor training, and asked us instead to train a large group of Leading Hands. That worked fine, except that, not surprisingly, their Supervisors were dead against it. Fortunately the enthusiasm of the Leading Hand group overcame that negative force.

In this instance, I'm not sure there will ever be a happy ending (which will only come about through the creation of Trust), unless either a strong, mature Management team is appointed for at least four years, along with some serious counselling work, or unless that Supervisor group is removed entirely or disbanded within the larger group of companies. Which is a bit unfair, considering that they are to an extent a product of Management actions/inactions in the past.

As a final comment, I have read several articles on the subject of Trust, but I didn't see any discussion or comment on 'historical reasons for a lack of Trust', and it seems to me that in serious situations where such mistrust is a major impediment then we have to somehow bring out the causes of that mistrust, no matter how far in the past they occurred, and deal with them before we can proceed any further. Otherwise the 'trust' you may think you have created, may in fact be cosmetic only, a thin veneer. At the crucial point it may snap...

The drive to create Trust has to be initiated by Management, and the first risks taken by Management. It's quite likely you will experience reluctance among the Management team itself, which has to be dealt with quickly and visibly. Don't expect an immediate response from Unions or Staff Representatives, either. Building Trust takes time, and is based on constant communication and consistent actions, not intentions.

I trust the above will cause some critical comment!

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand. email: steve@sta.co.nz
Steve Punter 1997 All rights reserved by the author

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