An Easy Win for an Out of Touch Boss

THE CHALLENGE

The company manufactured paper of all kinds. Huge multi-million dollar machines turned out thousands of rolls a day. The young boss, son of the founder, hadn’t a clue why the employees were so angry, threatening a strike. He called us in to find out what was the matter. He said he regularly walked the floor and was greeted cordially by nearly everyone. He knew that the foremen of the various lines were forever complaining about the lack of motivation of the workers and they routinely sprinkled their briefings with ethnic and racial slurs. But he figured that was a natural consequence of a changing neighborhood and changing workforce. Recently, two particularly tough-minded foremen’s tires were slashed, and, a week later, two windshields were smashed.

THE PROCESS

Our initial conversations with the foremen resulted in what the boss had heard, disrespect for the workers and major consequences for slight infractions could result in major consequences. This tight reign was the foremen’s way of dealing with passive aggression of the workers that, in turn, was seeded by the foremen’s own hostile behaviors.

Talking to the workers, as might be expected, was a different story. Their initial distrust and reluctance to talk turned into a salvo of frustration and anger once they trusted that the conversations were confidential. One hardened machine operator (top of the worker food chain) complained that, “I’m a thirty five year old man being treated like a kid. I have to raise my hand to take a wiz and, then, if I’m thirty seconds late I’ll be written up – in the meantime I run a ten million dollar machine. How stupid is that?” Another noted, ”They don’t even know our names. ‘Hey you’ is what they call me. Look, I’m not a You my name is Miguel.” And that wasn’t the worst of it. There was talk of sabotage and revenge and, of course, the impending strike. Something had to change and fast.

The boss may have been out of touch, but he wasn’t stupid. He called a meeting of the workers and promised immediate changes. He met with the foreman and laid down the law about language and attitudes. Within weeks there was a training program for them with a focus on diversity. A worker, manager, foreman joint committee was convened to problem solve the current situation with the boss as a member. The first order of business was to review all of the work rules. 

THE OUTCOME

The strike was averted. 

It was the beginning of a long and positive relationship that had a direct influence on morale and productivity. And it began with listening to all the constituents of the organization—a simple solution and a hard lesson. Sometimes our work is simply a matter of following the conversations. It also helps to have a leader who cared enough to be open, who didn’t become defensive and have to justify the past.