Listen to them first only then will they lend you a patient hearing.
Through my long, three-decade old IR journey — at times bumpy and at times smooth — I have been unable to comprehend as to why IR managers put all their efforts into stopping the formation of a workers’ union, or making the unions fail. This is as incongruous as eating a hot ice cream, or as elusive as pushing a painkiller down the throat to treat diarrhoea! In fact, we assume certain strange hypotheses, and try to build imaginary castles around them.
Our biggest hypothesis — ‘I understand people very well. I am the one who precisely knows how to deal with these workers’— is utter nonsense. This mania gets intensified through authoritative hierarchy. In majority of the cases this leads to the logjams, because the party on the other side too lives with the same obsession to reciprocate in the same language, with increasing strength.
It is almost uncertain to foresee the trigger point and intensity of human reactions, which is entirely situational and majorly dependent on what is going on below the surface. Based on the individual’s mindset, his ‘fire in the belly’ can make him anything from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler to Osama Bin Laden. In the same crisis, the reaction of a person with humanised values is different to the reaction of a person with raw animal instinct. Thus, critical boundaries need to be established on ethical and social grounds.
IR management is a bit crazier than managing lone wolves. In large setups, it is not possible for the managers to deal with every individual on common issues. This is troublesome in view of contradictory perceptions and vested interests of people involved across levels.
Good or bad, the union leader is ‘the leader’ of his group of people who, despite their internal differences, stand with him in front of the management. The management has to manage him, and thereafter it is his job to manage his people as per the terms agreed by him with the management. Generally, to play smart, some leaders and IR managers cross their boundaries, and venture into blame games. Interfering in each other’s domain is a suicidal quest. Pretense can never solve a problem in sustenance. The ethical way is to recognise and respect each other’s domain.
Formation of a union is a legally established right of workers. Some managers try to stop the unstoppable, thus proving to the workers that the management is against their legal rights, and that the management is afraid of their unity. How can the management justify and handle this untrustworthiness?
Both parties are usually unaware of the right perspective of united leadership because they have never been taught anything about it. This ignorance creates an inflated ‘ghost effect’ around a non-issue. ‘Rights’ are overplayed, ‘duties’ are misplaced, ‘legalities’ are misunderstood and humanities look apprehensive. It is as straight a business as, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
We must appreciate that the union is an entity and an actively involved decisive partner in the business. Should we take it lightly and wait for it to show its strength?
Secondly, ‘birds of a feather flock together’, because they identify with each other, they ensure progress by supporting each other, and they enjoy natural gregariousness. Can there not be a single formula of sharing responsibility and prosperity? Why can’t a sweeper be engrossed to feel equal responsibility and proportionate growth in the growth of the company, like a manager is expected to? This is simply the game of mindsets that percolates down from the top of the pyramid. Let everyone feel aligned four-dimensionally — with the company, the seniors, the juniors, and with the rules.
Thirdly, poor communication is a great hazard in establishing camaraderie. The union is the best agency to establish the intent and effectiveness of any communication. It is the responsibility of the communicator, not the receiver, to ensure that proper communication is received by the receiver. Most of the IR managers fail to receive, generate and express the right message at the right time, to the right people. ‘The Ganga is polluted’ is a passing remark, not a managerial communication. We just shed our responsibility by pronouncing it. To provoke a managerial response, the communication must be specific— ‘Ganga is getting polluted at ____(place) through ____(pollutant) at the speed _____(volume) per ____(duration). The team headed by ____(XYZ) must plan and execute to stop this pollution by_____ (date). Manpower wastage is majorly due to the poor definition of work output.
Fourthly, decision making is a process, not an event. Generally decision makers make it an event by communicating the decision, already taken by them, to the people to follow. If people are not involved in the process of making decisions, how can they put their intent to accept and execute them meticulously? ‘This year, the company has decided to increase the wages by four per cent.’ Where does this four per cent come from? Why not three or five per cent? Why should then workers not react and demand an increase of eight per cent? If that be so, the management has to amend the decision or let the agitation eat out the productivity and discipline. However, the same four per cent could have been executed if the union was involved in concluding the figure through proper inputs.
Good or bad, the union leader is ‘the leader’ of his group of people who, despite their internal differences, stand with him in front of the management. The management has to manage him, and thereafter it is his job to manage his people as per the terms agreed by him with the management. Generally, to play smart, some leaders and IR managers cross their boundaries, and venture into blame games. Interfering in each other’s domain is a suicidal quest.
There are certain fundamentals that may be considered for meaningful engagement with the unions. We must appreciate that the union is an entity and an actively involved decisive partner in the business. Should we take it lightly and wait for it to show its strength? We cannot take people for granted. They come to work to earn a living. They know that there is a justified principle called ‘no work no pay’. But they also know the ‘strength of unity’. IR revolves around these two known fundamentals. We, as managers and leaders, generally fail to encompass the two, and slip into dualism.
Trust is the key to all relationships — do it or forget it! This is reciprocatory — begin it or end it. This is our greatest strength as IR managers — use it or lose it. This establishes our credibility. People may contradict our intent but should not doubt our content. That is the strength of our truthfulness. Trust and openness eliminate the possibility of manipulations engineered by people with vested interests. This is the best way to marginalise such elements in the system. ‘Honesty is the best policy.’
A proactive support system encourages mutual cohabitation. Dealing with humans, with all their possible strengths and weaknesses, seems to be a complex venture, but is as simple as walking straight. The rest follows suo moto. High speeds are achieved on straight roads, not on winding/bumpy roads. No agitator can continue agitated if the other party is not reacting similarly. Behave respectfully. The errant has to cool down at some point of time, and quickly too, if you offer a seat along with a glass of water.
But, humility does not mean surrendering to aggression. Gandhiji taught us to use the instrument of non-cooperation against aggressors as a reformist tool. Reacting to the aggressors gives them a chance to consolidate their aggression. It is better to keep your cool. The agressors will cool down on their own to make you the unharmed winner. Aggression is like a typhoon, if you rush against it, it will harm you more. It is better for the management to lie down and wait. Nature follows the law of equilibrium. Nothing can remain agitated for long. In IR administration I have tested this on many occasions. People like to listen you, but only after they have said whatever they wish. So, just give them a patient hearing first. Your goal is to shape the future, not to spoil the present. You can negotiate only if you are able to communicate calmly.
I remember an occasion, at one of my previous assignments, when the union went on a flash strike. I walked to the gathering, and seeing me approach, the leader started shouting. In fact, he was shivering and jumping around in anger — all his rage directed at me. I calmly went close to him, and repeatedly told him to ‘Relax to avoid blood pressure’, and started comforting him as a mature elder. I finally hugged him to cool him down. That gesture was therapeutic for everyone around. We all sat down and started chatting informally. Subsequently, at a calm pace I invited the leaders to my office to continue discussions. They themselves told the rest of the people to go to work.
Every war concludes with a treaty, which could have been signed off before the war, through some pro-active negotiations. An unresolved issue is one which is knotted in ego —a short-sightedness developed through a wrongly groomed mindset. Negotiation is the only tool to establish the rule of ‘cause and effect’, ‘no free lunch’, law of reasonableness and accountability in IR situations. But, true negotiation is not a game of ‘I win, you lose’. It is all about finding a way of mutual gain. A negotiator may be successful if he remembers this quote of Theodore Levitt, “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.”
It is common that most of the union leaders and IR managers are not equipped with legal awareness. Thus, they assume their rights and duties based on some hearsay hypothesis. Blame game is the tool of escapists. Responsible persons must dive deep and explore reality. The facts make people understand the issue fast. One should explain it accurately with facts and figures to make his point clear to all. One cannot and should not accept it if it is not established rightly. Rights don’t get created out of a vacuum, they have to be earned. The party claiming something as a right must establish it the way he has earned it. The IR managers must educate themselves and the union leaders to derive the facts. But, it has to be kept in mind by the IR managers that the union leaders cannot rub shoulders with them beyond a point to dethrone them.
(The author is plant HR head, Hero MotoCorp.)