The political primaries go on and on, as do the press conferences, even though the debates have waned.
Several themes have arisen in all of the political interactions, however, which may tell us something about how “workers” (not executives, perhaps?) are feeling about their lives. One candidate appears to be the leader of the angry “middle-aged” crowd who seemingly like nothing about life at all; oh, yes, they dislike the establishment — whatever that is. Does that mean they are unhappy with their political party, the Congress, the president, their family, their boss — or who is it that has them so riled up?
On the other side of the political fence, we see large groups of mostly millennials in a seemingly “non-drug induced” happy and energized mood supporting their candidate. Such an age conflict! But this group is likewise disaffected with the societal status quo. This group is directing its focus more on its (future) work lives and how they are angry at societal norms about work relationships and pay inequities forced upon them.
These two have galvanized all the other candidates to move toward looking at the individual’s plight in today’s economy with less attention to the traditional issues in a presidential election year. Yes, they say, statistics show an improvement — a steady one — in employment and all related data. However, many unemployed people do fit neatly into the structural unemployment category because their former jobs have disappeared due to trade agreements or new technology or lack of competitiveness. The plight of these “older” workers, who are not close to the societal accepted age of retirement, is causing tremors within an array of even more stable employment. For the younger workers — especially those college-educated ones — in addition to the burden of sizable college loans (sometimes attributable to poor decision making on their part), there are fewer employment opportunities. The whole array of “majors” offered in universities is under review; people expect to get a job in their field of study, but there are few jobs in specialty areas often chosen in college.
So we have both ends of the employment spectrum in a quandary and large groups of previously silent (hidden?) citizens being outraged at societal institutions. Likely, some managers reading here have found themselves personally affected by the political dialogues of 2016. Even if there are no “demonstrations” at your workplace I can assure you that what is being said on both sides of the aisle is having an impact on the thinking of your employees.
In a number of interactions I have had recently with employee groups, these issues get raised. The employees I have encountered do not seem to be connecting the political dialogues with their particular setting — yet. It will happen, and some managers will be surprised. So be forewarned so you can be prepared for the questions to be raised on your home turf. So let’s consider some of the issues as they may apply to your situation, whether it is at a small marina or a large manufacturing facility.
The Wall Street Journal began a look at this broad issue in an article on March 28 (Workplace Democracy Catches On, by Rachael Emma Silverman). Although the writer selected high-tech companies for her sample of how employees are being given more and more freedom to design the environment in which they work, the same principles can work in any setting. Dating from the 1980s, the concept of providing more opportunities for non-managerial employees to participate more fully in their workplace experience has evolved; the movement became known as participative management, or worker participation.
This is but one of the issues you are likely to see develop as a result of today’s political dialogue. As the WSJ article points out, not everyone wants to get involved; older employees have learned to be regimented and many younger workers want a “piece of the action.” Today entrepreneurs have developed software programs to get employees engaged in ongoing aspects of the job and to participate as they wish in decisions: what music to play in the workplace; hiring decisions relating to future colleagues; holidays to add/delete; application of pay increases across various possibilities; and matching colleagues with new jobs.
McKinsey & Co. has successfully used such digital tools as Tiny-Pulse and Know Your Company. In several case studies unions have been joint sponsors of such employee opinion polling. These are often single-issue efforts and not the longer “opinion surveys” of years past.
Turning to the issue of pay increases, the political actors have been impressing on our psyches that all income increases have been going to the top 1 percent of income recipients and that the “working class” has received no pay increases in a decade. In reality, many people today are underemployed and are being paid less than they were a decade ago (likely by different employers). Examine your company’s pay increases during the past decade. Wise executives could use such data to disprove the politicians’ efforts and create a better environment at home to ward off possible unrest as the political season continues.
“A recession is coming!” “The economy is in a terrible condition!” So says one politician. When such statements are made over and over, they normally become truisms. People in every walk of life will start to believe there must be some fire under all the smoke. Their behaviors will change. Yet as anyone looks at this heterogeneous industry, hard data suggest good times ahead and not doom and gloom.
Do your employees understand the non-political realities of today’s economy? How did they learn this? Most need help. Here is where a little participatory management could be of help.
When I was in high school, my father was a line supervisor; I recall him talking about the “tool box” meetings held in his large lumber/flooring mill. He had to review the week’s performance and highlight the successes and poor performance of the total group (no personalities). In addition, he was to talk about what they would expect the next week and what each person should plan for. He was shocked when some employees indicated they saw a better way of organizing the work for better success. My dad, at first, resisted. Certainly this was not unusual for the time period. After he (and his closest adviser — his wife) discussed this obstacle to his authority, he began to ask for opinions rather than say how the work would be done. He found that this created less employee conflict.
So why not consider a series of department meetings (not a large gathering)? It is likely that supervisors will need some help in preparing for such meetings. But be alert. Employees often will begin to raise issues of concern to them (that 1 percent group, the $15 minimum wage, differential vacation length, parking, health insurance costs, etc.). It is then crucial that a mechanism be provided for supervisors to channel information gleaned “upstairs.”
Research shows that senior managers are commonly ill-informed of shop floor concerns. A behavioral tool of the 1980s may be of help: MBWA — remember this? Management by Walking Around suggests that senior managers need to walk the work floor and spend time chatting with employees and seeking ideas about how they might do their jobs more efficiently (a profit motivation). Senior managers must be sure not to step on the ability of line supervisors to solve the problem.
Review the fine column in the April Trade Only by Mary Elston (page 63) and find some warning signs of not being the “boss” you need to be. Listen now to the political rhetoric on both sides of the fence and see what might become a problem for your company. Being proactive is a sign of a quality leader. Good luck.
Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail: JFR@vt.edu.
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.