First, let’s be clear about what this article is about and what it’s trying to say and not say.
It’s not about debating the existence of unions or the positive or negative effects they may have now or in the past.
What it is about is to show that the fact that unions exist, or that employees are pushing for unions in a company, is a sign of failed leadership.
When people are pushing for unions, it’s often because the employees of the organization feel like they are not being heard, they feel they are being treated poorly, and/or they feel their needs or not being met.
An example is when workplace situations were much more unsafe, and employees unionized in order to push for safer work environments.
These situations are often created because leadership isn’t doing its job and their behaviors and mentalities hurt the business and employees instead of helping. If they had put their people first, not only would they have saved everyone from that issue, but they would have had a much more productive company.
One of the biggest tragedies that comes with unions
One of the biggest tragedies that create unions, and that is easily perpetuated by the existence of unions, is the “us vs. them” mentality.
In the most successful companies, everyone is focused on the same goal working together to accomplish that goal.
That’s how the best products are made, that’s how the best ideas come about, and that’s how the customer is best served – when everyone is working together toward a common goal.
This focus is created by different factors, including a well-defined mission that is lived top-down, a culture of safety where people’s input is valued and heard and people feel safe speaking up, where information and communication are free-flowing, where trust is rampant, where politics are low and autonomy is given, and where people have put over profits.
The problem is, that frequently doesn’t happen. Often leaders have the wrong mentality.
First, their mentality may be about themselves, not service. They may see their position as a perk or reward, or they do it for the rewards, or whatever similar it may be. The issue is, that when you are about serving yourself, instead of serving the mission and team, you won’t do the hard work that’s required as a leader. You’ll focus on your status and rewards and doing what’s easy or what you want instead of the mission and team – and the company will suffer for it.
Bad decisions will be made because the focus and mentality are completely wrong (for more information about this topic, read Patrick Lencioni’s book The Motive).
There’s also the false mentality that it’s all about profit, “profit maximization”, and the shareholders. That mentality kills companies – and it often leads to short-term thinking.
People do stupid stuff just to show a profit for the quarter. They lay off people just to get the number right. They hurt themselves long-term just to get short-term numbers today.
Your focus shouldn’t be on shareholders (only), it should be on all the stakeholders – especially the customer. And, as Simon Sinek says, you can’t build loyal customers without loyal employees.
In fact, Simon Sinek mentions in his book The Infinite Game that many treat businesses as renters instead of owners.
Think about a car or house someone rents versus their own. What do they treat better?
He says that often shareholders (and many of today’s executives) have this viewpoint. They want to get what they can out of it as fast and as quick as they can – with seemingly little care for the long-term.
This leads to a profit over people mentality – and when people are treated as expenses and as cogs or tools to be discarded on a whim notice – of course they are not going to be engaged.
And the thing is, when you have engaged employees, you save so much money in retention, have higher productivity, have better ideas, obtain greater problem-solving and decision-making, and increase innovation.
However, the way some leaders treat employees (and the mindset they have with it) destroys that. And, as long as they have the short-term thinking, it will continue.
(And even Peter Drucker called the concept of profit maximization “meaningless” (see The Essential Drucker)).
These mentalities and ways of thinking are what create this me vs. you attitude.
As Brene Brown says in Dare to Lead:
“It happens all too often that bosses view employees as lesser being who can be degraded without conscience; that employees view their bosses as tyrants to be toppled; and that peers view one another as enemy combatants.”
Instead of working together, they are working against one another. Instead of seeing one another as allies, they see each other as enemies.
Employees aren’t going above and beyond and innovating, they are doing just what’s necessary to get by.
Leaders see employees as tools to extract as much use out of as they can, and employees want to extract as much as they can from their employers.
There will never be a win when we see each other as the enemy. And who ends up suffering for it? The customer (along with every other stakeholder).
This is not the way to a healthy company, and these mentalities lead to why unions are created.
And then when unions are created, does that end that mentality? Does that make everything better?
Generally, that mentality stays around. It doesn’t fix it.
Yes, it may help fix some of the issues that need to be fixed, such as it did for safer work environments or giving employees a voice, but generally the mentality of “you versus me” sticks. The union doesn’t go away, it sticks around and need to prove why it needs to stick around, which can perpetuate that mentality even more.
And it’s not about the best of the company and the best of the customer, it’s about each one getting the most out of or beating the other.
As the saying goes, “A house divided cannot stand.”
Even if the company lasts a while, it will never be as effective as it can be.
Listen to podcast: Episode 10: Make It Safe
How the leaders should act in these companies
First of all, leaders should have the right mentality – it should be of service, not serving. They should be about the mission, not themselves.
They should think long-term, not short-term. They should never sacrifice the long-term for a short-term image of a gain.
They should treat people as resources, not expenses. They should realize that the best and most successful companies have the most engaged employees who are listened to and treated as valuable.
They are focused on all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
They show trust in their employees, provide a clear mission and expectations, and provide autonomy for their people.
They create a culture of safety where employees feel safe speaking up, admitting mistakes, sharing problems, giving feedback, asking for help, and so on.
They listen and create systems of feedback to make sure they know what’s really happening in the company and with their customers, and it’s a tool where they get ideas for improvement.
They push decision-making as close as they can to the problem because they trust their people, train them well, and know that those closest to the problems often have the most information.
They create a clear mission and values that they model themselves and communicate well and frequently.
In that they provide purpose and meaning to their employees and their work.
In cultures like this, there is no need for unions because employees feel valued, their voice is heard, and the company is more productive and profitable long term.