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What has good ER got to do with organisational leadership?

Diverse views are good for organisations. Without them, organisations often only change when the law changes or the criticism gets too loud and customers walk away. Employees, employee networks and union reps have good ideas but some leaders find listening to different opinions too challenging. They think that now they are a leader, they have the ideas that work because that’s why they are a leader. But the best leaders listen, are prepared to be respectfully challenged and are happy to change their minds when they hear a better approach. They can also, with credibility, explain why a particular decision has to be made.

In employee relations, how can you help leaders to better listen to employee views? You can encourage leaders to stay connected to employees, to go out into operational areas, talk to people with different views and to understand what gets in the way of people doing their jobs well. It might sound easy, but in my experience, many leaders find this hard. But when they build up trust, they will find out information and understand perspectives which will change the way they lead. I recognise that workplace changes due to Covid have made this more difficult but hopefully soon, even with hybrid working for some, leaders can find time to really listen.

In one organisation I worked in, leadership teams across manufacturing, were expected to spend an hour a day, at least, on the factory floor, finding out what technicians needed leaders to do to make their job easier. It was, after all, the technician that made the medicine that the patient needs. A leader’s job was not to tie up other people’s time putting in extra process or checks (yes please, design a new timesheet, that’s where value is added…), or justifying more central resource (to monitor completion of the timesheet perhaps?), or adding in more organisational layers, or sitting in their offices asking for more data whilst enjoying the egotistical trappings of being a leader. It was a leader’s role to remove obstacles in the way of technicians and they could only do that by going to talk to them and understanding their perspective.

In other organisations, leadership teams were much less visible unless there was a “town hall” event and many employees didn’t know who they were apart from seeing their faces on organisation charts on the intranet. Leadership teams stayed in their offices, often all situated together, justifying their decisions amongst people who always agreed with them. When employees or unions then felt disgruntled about a decision, the leaders felt let down by their employees for being awkward or disloyal. This is when those in ER can be influential in changing the approach and style of the organisational leaders and slowly influence the workplace culture.

It can be as simple as encouraging leaders and those in HR to be more curious and more visible or it can be more formal through engagement at employee forums, employee networks and trade union meetings, or a mixture of the two. I have helped organisations set up more formal structures such as employee forums, mixed models of TU and employee representatives and improve long established TU forums, all of which can be excellent ways of listening to different perspectives. Using joint teams with managers, employees and reps is also a powerful way of leaders getting used to and valuing different views.

Whatever way suits your organisation, if through all organisational layers, employee views are encouraged, listened to and acted upon, leaders become better leaders, representatives take more responsibility and employees feel more valued.



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