How to lead when workers move to organize

The recent surge in union activity can fester tensions or it can invite collaboration, depending how prepared executives are to respond. 

A Sept. 29 article from Cambridge, Mass.-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology's management school examined a research report from Thomas Kochan, a professor at the school, and the Worker Empowerment Research Network. 

The article identified four tips for leaders managing unionized workers. 

1. Understand where workers are coming from. 

The rise in union activity is not a result of new problems but a failure to adequately address old ones, according to MIT's report. The Economic Policy Institute found that worker productivity has risen 161.8 percent since 1950 while hourly compensation has increased only 117.5 percent. COVID-19 revealed such issues to workers — they want to return to a workplace better than the one they left. 

2. Forfeit the illusion of control. 

Leaders cannot control unionized workers, and they should not take their actions personally, according to Kochan. Executives should shift their mindset to view union activity as an expression of commitment to improving their organizations' operations and performance. 

3. Negotiate with an open mind. 

Communicate openly about why something will or will not work and be transparent about any barriers in place. Understand the perspective each individual brings as the person on the front lines of their job, and make sure even quiet voices have a space to be heard. 

Doing so can lead to lower turnover, better engagement and higher productivity according to Kochan. "Be willing to communicate, even when it's not good news," Kochan said. "That's what builds respect." 

4. Give workers space to enact change beyond unionization efforts. 

The article recommends a distributed leadership model, in which "formal and informal" leaders frequently collaborate on flexible teams. Organizations using a distributed leadership model fared better in relating to one another, understanding complex environments, linking individual and collective missions and innovating new structures, according to a 2015 study titled "Leading Sustainable Change: An Organizational Perspective." 

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