Five months into his job, a newly appointed fire chief spoke enthusiastically about the forward momentum of his department, the support from his Board of Fire Commissioners, and the collaborative nature of labor-management relations. Yet during our conversation he twice raised a question that troubled him: is the current harmony between labor and management sustainable?
Although well-meaning colleagues acknowledged that his “honeymoon” period with the union was lasting longer than “normal,” they assured him that it must end. Their confidence in the inevitable deterioration of the relationship, based on their experiences, as well as his own previous negative labor-management experience in other departments, made him question the sustainability of his initial success.
Quite simply, this negative prognosis is wrong. Of course the harmonious relationship the fire chief has established is sustainable. There simply is no reason why it must end. In addition to the many things the fire chief is doing now to nurture and support key relationships, there are other techniques he can call upon to fortify and build on the strong foundation he has created.
Here are some of the things the fire chief has done or is doing that have enabled his success in creating an environment of collaboration between labor and management:
- Created and communicated clear boundaries around what behaviors are and are not acceptable
- Minimizes the likelihood of surprises by engaging in on-going communication with the union president
- Does his homework when issues arise, and then speaks directly with the union president to discuss and resolve them so they do not escalate unnecessarily
- Honors the expertise and creativity of employees and stakeholders by Inviting them to participate in on-going conversations about how best to achieve the department’s mission
- Listens to the responses he receives, considers the feedback carefully in making decisions, and incorporates it as much as possible
- Shares information freely and honestly with others
- Continues to expand the circle of leadership down into the organization
- Uses the best interest of the community as his touchstone for decision-making
- Treats others with respect whether they agree or disagree with him
Here are some techniques I suggested that the fire chief might consider using to ensure the sustainability of collaborative labor-management relations:
- Look for successes and opportunities rather than dwell on failures or challenges
- Change the conversation to focus on the level of public safety being provided rather than on where to cut resources
- Ask purposeful questions that require actionable responses – e.g., instead of asking, “Can we do XYZ?” ask, “How can we do XYZ?”
- Re-awaken employees’ sense of purpose and passion for their work by asking them to remember why they joined the department, and to recall the hopes, dreams, and aspirations they had for themselves and the organization
- Identify what things he can and cannot control, and focus on those that he can influence
My prediction: by staying on the path he has chosen and perhaps adding a few techniques such as those described above, this fire chief not only will defy his colleagues’ prognosis, he and his employees will create a sustainable culture of harmonious and productive labor-management relations that will continue long after he has retired. This outcome can only serve his community well, both now and in the future.
Who says the honeymoon has to end?
© 2012 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.