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SHOP STEWARDS AS LEADERS

Time for a rethink?

One our consultants had an interesting experience at a printing and packaging company when training shop stewards on how to represent employees in disciplinary cases. He related how on his arrival on the first day of training, he was concerned by the language mix of the shop stewards. Of the eight shop stewards, seven were IsiZulu speakers and only one spoke English.

The consultant’s concern was prompted by his perception of shop stewards being highly politicised people with strong identities. He was worried that they were going to start communicating in IsiZulu to the exclusion of this one member of the group. His other concern was that within the group, were shop stewards from two unions affiliated to two traditionally opposing political parties. This, he thought might influence how the groups interact especially in group exercises. They made it clear that “comrade” and “qabane” had different political connotations and one should not confuse the two. He was however pleasantly surprised!

Bridging Differences

Not only did the IsiZulu speaking shop stewards speak English but they made every effort to include the English speaker by asking for his opinion and engaging with him in discussions. The second pleasant surprise came in the ease and pleasant manner in which the groups from the two unions interacted. Nobody could have guessed that their unions were affiliated to political groups that were once at a bitter war with each other. The trainer was also pleasantly surprised at the level and the quality of the discussions in the training.

Whereas in some companies past shop stewards adopt an adversarial approach, blindly and aggressively defending employees in disciplinary enquiries, these shop stewards were different. Instead they were looking for ways of identifying employee problems whilst they are still small and manageable. These shop stewards felt that the focus should be on correction and that they should work with supervisors and line managers to try to resolve problems long before they get to the disciplinary enquiry stage. They were particularly keen to assist in the rehabilitation of troubled employees. Typical signs of a troubled employee include:-

  • Repeated absenteeism – especially after weekends, public holidays and pay days.
  • Sick leave – excessive sick leave, usually for one or two days. Sick after weekends, rest days and pay days.
  • Poor timekeeping – late in mornings / after lunch, unexplained absences from work station.
  • Tiredness/ laziness – lacks energy, constantly tired and unenthusiastic.
  • Inattentiveness – constantly pre-occupied, forgets things, unable to concentrate.
  • Poor or deteriorating performance – mistakes due to inattentiveness or forgetfulness. Failure to meet deadlines, unenthusiastic about work matters.
  • Behaviour patterns mood swings and / or sudden changes in behaviour, including, behaviour which is ‘out-of-character’; temper tantrums; over-reaction to real or imagined criticism; accidents, especially afternoons or after breaks; and general unreliability.

Contrary to the conventional idea of shop stewards as being difficult to work with, these shop stewards were not out to fight with management over trivial issues. They were clearly leaders seeking what is in their members best interests.

Lessons

A few lessons can be learnt from this experience. First and foremost is that there needs to be a shift in the thinking that defines shopfloor relations. Instead of supervisors and shop stewards that resemble war generals always ready to go to war, we need leaders that work co-operatively to find more effective and lasting solutions to employee problems.

Companies will benefit by training both shop stewards and supervisors on not only labour relations matters but also on leadership. This will eliminate the focus on dismissal as the only solution to an employee who does not conform or whose performance does not meet expectations.

This printing and packaging company has already started on this journey, providing their shop stewards with training to effectively carry out their duties as employee representatives. If there was anything to be learnt from Donald Trump’s TV programme, the Apprentice it was that formal academic and technical qualifications do not always incorporate people skills. This is achieved by leadership training.  Shop stewards are a potential source of leaders for the future and this should be recognised.

Companies often make the mistake appointing people to team leader positions on the basis of their technical skills. These team leaders often end up being hated by their teams who become dysfunctional and unproductive.

Leadership training

Companies spend vast sums of money on leadership training for top management, which often does not translate into organisational change. Mission statements and well thought out strategies often fail because leadership training at operational and team levels is ignored. It is after all the middle managers and team leaders who actually make things happen. They make or break the product or the service offered.

The same can be said for shop stewards. They can take a negative stance and adopt a spoiling adversarial approach or they can work to the common good of all. However, many employees still have a perception that the shop steward should be fighting management on their behalf. Without leadership skills shop stewards will simply go along with members perceptions instead of identifying the most productive way forward and helping their members to see and accept this.

In effective organisations employees do not have to be policed. They accept responsibility for their work and they participate in the rewards thereof. The shop steward can play a vital role in changing perceptions and in negotiating productivity schemes which benefit everyone. Let us therefore be forward thinking and provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills to do this.

Bruno Bruniquel

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