A colleague of mine is an executive in a truly excellent company, one very explicit about its “Culture of High Performance.” Mutual trust and respect, open communication, and positive assumptions are identified as keys to organizational success. This company is also a very strong business-strategy player. But it does not identify only the “hard business” side of the success equation. The people-side of the equation is highlighted. 

An integrated approach

Going back at least as far as the 1940s, organizational theorists began to recognize the joint technical-and-social nature of work. Up until that time (and well beyond) the mindset was, design an efficient production process and people will plug in and run it as extensions of the machine. But if employees are bored and have no say in how things are done, it’s unlikely many of them will be highly motivated. The iconic best-in-class companies commonly exhibit a blend of both smart business strategy and smart people strategy. The leaders of the pack most often emphasize an integrated approach.

Researchers and practitioners recognized decades ago that a leader’s focus either on task (“initiating structure”) or on relationships (“showing consideration”) represented a false dichotomy. The most effective leaders focused on both. They got results and engaged their associates, not choosing one emphasis to the exclusion of the other.

Union-management strain

 Could a hypothetical organization build an excellent business model, streamline production, do masterful marketing, and be successful long term even if it consistently treated its employees badly? At the other extreme, is it possible that an organization could build a successful high-involvement, pro-employee workplace, and be a great place to work (at least for a while) even if it did not attend to the needs of the business?

It’s widely known that union-management relationships can be, and often are, challenging. A central reason is that in “traditional” organizations management has focused on the needs of the business (in fairness, it is their critical responsibility), and has been less concerned with the needs of the people. The union has historically focused on the needs of the people (also in fairness, their primary responsibility), and has been less concerned with the needs of the business.

Where union-management relationships have improved, the prevailing model has become business and people, jointly emphasized by both “sides.” The true, functioning union-management partnerships are predicated on this “both, not either-or” proposition.

It’s not either-or

Think about our shared goal of a safe workplace. Is our safety focus driven by a concern for people? All of us would reply strongly in the affirmative. Is our focus driven by a concern for the business? Here our reply might not be quite as strong -- it can come across as insensitive and inhumane to “put a price tag on safety.” But injuries negatively impact direct and indirect costs. Safety is an illustrative example of the essential nature of a joint people-and-business focus. The bottom line: organizations that explicitly address the needs of the business and the needs of the people are best positioned for success.