Fostering Connection, Collaboration, and Transformation to Move From Enraged to Engaged.
(A Winnipeg Transit Story)
An interview with Helen Maupin
I had the good fortune to interview Helen Maupin in Winnipeg recently. Helen is involved in Whole Systems Design with the legacybowesgroup and was involved in a large scale initiative with Winnipeg Transit. In partnership with representatives from all parts of the organization, Helen recently offered a session on: From Enraged to Engaged: Connecting Through Collaboration.
As I listened to Helen I could hear how proud and appreciative she was of the people from Winnipeg Transit who voiced their story and experiences with this engaging, connected, and collaborative approach to transforming employee engagement within Winnipeg Transit.
I was impressed with the elegant and robust simplicity of Helen’s statement during the interview: “My job was to show up, really be present, and support the engagement in the organization in whatever pockets it was showing potential to emerge or was already emerging.”
Can you offer readers a thumbnail sketch of the Transit story and what stimulated an approach to connect through collaboration?
In August 2008, Winnipeg Transit narrowly escaped a strike vote that would have crippled the public transportation system and inconvenienced 130,000 commuters. What so enraged over 1000 civil servants, namely bus operators, to want to send City Hall a message and what was their message? Three major conditions led up to this trigger event — the health/stress factors facing bus operators, the command and control cultural of Transit, and the adversarial and often bullying relationships between management, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and its membership.
Winnipeg Transit operates a 24/7, 365-day schedule. New operators are required to work weekends and holidays, and days off may not be consecutive or consistent. The majority of shifts take place between 5 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. New operators work both day and night shifts, at times changing from one to the other with little notice. Split shifts consisting of two or three pieces of work can take over 12 hours to complete. The new operator can expect to be placed on what is known as the spare board where work assignments can change daily and even hourly. The choice of when vacation can be taken is limited by seniority. There is extremely limited supervision and support as the supervisor-operator reporting ratio is 1:350, which does not allow for continued coaching and development.
In addition, the work requires:
- fielding requests from hundreds of passengers a day,
- driving through heavy traffic while minding traffic signs and rules of the road,
- watching for bus stop signs,
- being mindful of late passengers who are running for the bus,
- attending to cyclists on and off the road,
- adjusting to changing weather and road conditions, construction and rerouting,
- dealing with noise on and off the bus as well as with unruly passengers, and
- being aware of the warning signs when an assault could take place.
Command and Control Culture:
Transit’s management reward system was built on a seniority scale with years of service being rewarded as opposed to customer service and performance excellence. This culture of entitlement promoted management based on who was next in line and not on who was best suited at coaching and developing the workforce. Add into this mix the supervisor-operator reporting ratio of 1:350, it becomes apparent why efficiency not effectiveness was the management style of the day. Although it may seem more efficient to discipline for failure rather to coach for success, these tactics left the operators feeling blamed for many circumstances beyond their control. What evolved was an atmosphere of mistrust between operators and management, which was noticeable in the cafeteria where the two sides would not sit together or interact. Ultimately, morale was low for both supervisory and driving staff.
Relationships between the Union and its Members:
While negotiating the 2008 contract, the union was unable to reach a deal acceptable to operators and in fear of strike action, the ATU Executive ratified a settlement with the Winnipeg City Council believing the contract did not have to be voted on by the overall membership. The membership was infuriated when they learned of this development. Bus operators felt their voices were not being heard and there was no guarantee management would entertain changing any of their poor working conditions. Traditionally, the ATU had always followed their own international by-laws, which they discovered are superseded by Manitoba Labor Laws. As a result of this oversight, tempers flared and trust in the union eroded.
The City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) was aware of the circumstances brewing inside Transit. The CAO attended mass meetings with the ATU membership and, after listening to their issues, assured drivers that if they accepted the contract, Transit would embark on changing its culture and working conditions. In a letter written to the ATU President, the CAO stated, “While achieving cultural change is a long term endeavor, I am committed to achieving positive change in our workplaces.” Hope was sparked amongst the union membership and a vote of 57% passed the contract.
What was your governing philosophy through the project?
There are no bad people, only bad systems that frustrate good people from doing good work. Agreement by the tri-partite working conditions committee (management, union and employees) on this principle was the first small win.
What did you see as the link between collaboration and engagement?
No one wishes to come to work to do a bad job. We are all seeking ways to contribute to the betterment of ourselves, our workplaces and our societies. When we bring together as change agents those who will be impacted by the change, we have engaged passion, curiosity and multiple problem solving skills. It is this combination of variables within a collaborative group that releases innovation and creativity, which are necessary factors in resolving the complex, big life and work issues of today. When our emotions and intelligence are activated in purposeful endeavors, we are engaged. When we have the opportunity to be engaged within a group sharing a purposeful goal, we exponentially increase both our ability to change our world and our enjoyment in the success of this community.
What were some of the key steps to foster wide scale engagement?
- Agree collectively on operating principles or guidelines that set the desired standard for how everyone wishes to be treated and will commit to working toward (i.e., eliminate fault-finding/blaming others).
- Require compassion and forgiveness to be part of #1. We will all slip back into old, possibly destructive, patterns of behaviour until our new practices are internalized. Everyone deserves a second chance.
- Do not take others’ negative responses personally. We cannot create others’ feelings, only they can choose how to feel in any situation. Personalizing an attack from another person, only escalates defensiveness and negative outcomes.
- Tackle less contentious tasks initially to bring about early small wins. This effectively allows for the development of new skills (learning-while-doing) and builds confidence within the change stewards that they are able to rebuild relationships and trust. When the harder tasks arrive on the agenda, their practice and confidence have created the foundation needed to meet these challenges.
- Begin early in the engagement process to include as many new individuals as possible in order to prevent jealousy, elitism and a boundary forming around the change stewards whose role is really internal consultants to their constituencies.
What were the challenges you or the people in the organization had to overcome to move from enraged to engaged?
- The disbelief that peace is possible, particularly when someone you have fought bitterly with for years now sees you as the problem and vice versa. In other words, trusting that there is a better way, and it is possible to get there.
- Accept that when we engage in change, it means that we will be changing some aspect of ourselves before we can engage others in that change. This means everyone involved changes — the external consultant, management, the union, employees, customers and suppliers.
- Fear-based decision making shrinks rather than expands potential. Engagement in life requires us to lean into our fears. This is why compassion and forgiveness are such necessary states of being because we all need to feel some level of safety in order to challenge ourselves with uncertainty and the unknown.
What were the key results?
1. Financial ROI: a conservative estimate of $612,762. savings over one year.
Staff turnover and training cost savings in 2009 of $156,762.
Grievances reduced from 35 (22 required legal fees) in 2005-2008 to 0 in 2009-10 with a combined (ATU and Transit) savings of $456,000.
2. Employee Survey February 2010 (compared to 2004 survey) confirmed significant improvements in:
Respect and consideration of supervisors
Receiving credit for a job well done
Understanding the need for work-life balance
Improving working conditions — safety and technology
3. Organizational Culture:
Increased investment in employee engagement
Improved responsiveness to employee issues
New leadership style with a focus on training, coaching and skill building
Increased trust between ATU and management
Improved problem-solving when dealing with employee performance issues
Increased decision-making for bus operators
Commitment from ATU, Management and Bus Operators to improve working conditions using Collaborative Work Systems
What are 3 to 5 key tips you would offer another organization or individual if they wanted to make the journey from enraged to engaged?
- Believe in the power of three. Bringing a 3rd-party to the table when relationships have descended to blame and fault-finding allows for clearer insight and new forms of engaging behaviour to be tried. That 3rd party may be the employees that management and the union work for.
- Believe in the process of engagement. Rekindle your relationship with trust. Do you view life as inherently good or evil? Do you trust your own abilities to provide what you need to thrive? Remind yourself that your ability to trust in the creative powers of life increases your ability to move beyond survival into thriving.
- Believe in the impossible. Today’s accomplishments were once someone’s impossible dreams. In my view, there is nothing that cannot be accomplished by an engaged, purposeful group willing to take one step-at-a-time.
- Believe that joy is our only job.
It was enlightening and joyful to speak with Helen about such a powerful approach to fostering employee engagement.
Here is Helen Maupin contact information:
Helen Maupin, M.A. VP Whole Systems Design & Dev’t. Legacy Bowes Group
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David Zinger, M.Ed., helps organizations and individuals increase employee engagement. He is a writer, educator, speaker, and consultant. David founded the 3200 member Employee Engagement Network. He is committed to increasing employee engagement 20% by 2020. Contact David today to improve engagement where you work
(Email: firstname.lastname@example.org / Phone 204 254 2130 / Website: www.davidzinger.com)