Staff must be allowed to make their contribution

People are irritating, difficult and complex. But the way not to respond is
to ‘cling’ or ‘wing’ it, as the senior management of several high-profile
companies have done recently.

‘Clinging’ is using power to impose your will upon the unwilling, and
‘winging’ is fumbling ahead, pretending you understand what you are doing and
claiming responsibility when things go right.

When people oppose you, are they wrong? People only bother to oppose what
they feel passionately about. Smothering the opposition will only kill passion.
And without passion there is no commitment, no innovation and no initiative.

Staff opposition to plans to merge Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) wonderfully
egalitarian culture with Compaq probably irritated CEO Carly Fiorina. But what
if they were right? She chose to ‘cling’ to power and bulldoze aside
opposition, and ‘wing’ it by following a strategy of merger that historically
fails in seven out of 10 attempts.

The key factor to HP’s competitiveness is its innovation, and the only thing
that keeps driving its innovation forward is its passion. What happens if by
clinging to power, she turns that passion off?

Elsewhere, struggling United Airlines is clinging to old ideas of power
relationships when it assumes that it has to choose between alienating
employees (by cutting wages) and driving away customers (by increasing prices).

Its competitor, Southwest Airlines, does not cling to this idea and believes
instead that employee, customer and shareholder happiness are all linked. Its
staff are freed from uniforms, are self-managing, are paid way above average,
and repay this treatment with the best productivity in the industry.

In the early days of the current management’s tenure, it was faced with a
strike. Concerned staff would lose money while striking, management arranged
temporary jobs for them with the postal service. There has not been a strike
since, despite Southwest being more unionised than its competitors. Its people
are treated like family, its motto of ‘feel the love’ is genuine, and customers
are seen as loyal, extended family members.

No surprise that United’s managers are forced to wing it by announcing
doomed plans that have neither the support nor the input of employees, when its
employees are often afraid to innovate in case they make mistakes that lead to
disciplinary action.

If United continues to ask for full involvement only when it is facing
disaster, it will miss out on the benefits of a fully-engaged workforce.
Instead of fighting unions, it should welcome them as proof of a level of
self-organisation and initiative among workers that could yet, if set free, if
unshrunk, solve its real problem, which is productivity.

The quick fix of ‘cling and wing’ is tempting but it does not work. People
need to contribute and to be part of something meaningful that is bigger than
them. They need to be collaborators and not followers.

When they can’t contribute, they are shrunk and all that human potential is
lost to the organisation and society. If we want people to give more, then we
have to make room for their opinions, fears, hopes and dreams.

By Max Mckeown, Corporate activist and co-author of best-selling
management title Unshrink

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