The Role of Faith, Trust, and Respect in the Workplace

There has been a major disconnect between management and labor in our country for over 80 years. That disconnect first became apparent at the end of the sit-down strike that took place at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in December 1936.  A year earlier, the United States had passed the Wagner Act, legitimizing unions. This law gave birth of the United Auto Workers, the union that represented GM workers during the sit-down strike. Unfortunately, the relationship between the UAW and GM became toxic and led to what we have identified as industrial warfare.

Let’s look at two possible scenarios for how GM and the UAW could interact in the aftermath of the sit-down strike settlement. One scenario is that GM and the UAW would each focus upon their respective roles but decide to work toward the common goal of making GM a successful company. The implications of this scenario would have led to cooperation and mutual respect in strengthening the company, providing it with a significant competitive advantage.  A second scenario, the one that mirrors what really happened, could be one of the greatest mistakes ever made by a major corporation. GM management viewed the UAW as the enemy, setting the tone for industrial warfare and one of its major consequences, industrial depression. Industrial warfare diverts the energy of management and the workforce, preventing the two parties from working together as partners. Instead, industrial warfare leads to open conflict between labor and management, which saps the energy from the workforce and results in lose/lose labor settlements. Imagine the loss represented by GM shrinking from a position commanding 60 percent of the domestic car market in the 1960s and early 1970s to less than 20 percent of the domestic car market, and facing bankruptcy, in 2009.  

What happened at the GM Tonawanda Engine plant in 1983 was a dramatic shift from industrial warfare that existed prior to 1983 to a partnership between the union leadership and management. It started with adoption of three core values: faith, trust, and respect for each other. These values were the cornerstone of how the plant energized its workforce in one of the greatest corporate culture turnarounds ever reported.  It is not hard to understand why workers would enjoy knowing that their management exhibits complete faith in them. It is not hard to understand why workers would appreciate their management having complete trust in them. It also is not hard to be thankful for the respect shown to workers by management, making them feel they are a vital member of the team put together to make quality engines for GM cars. It is these values that formed the foundation for culture change described in the book Unleashing Human Energy through Culture change, resulting in the surge of energy that increased productivity by up to 120 percent and sustained it over an extended time period. This energy surge also played a role in the workforce setting a world record for a single day of production in the plant.

People work best when they are treated with faith, trust, and respect. These values need to be sincere and demonstrated in action. Management must incorporate these values if it expects workers to be energized and productive. For management, there is a real choice to be made:  treat workers negatively and you will push them away, diverting or diminishing the energy they are willing to give to their work. Treat them with faith, trust, and respect, and they will feel appreciated, freely releasing energy and providing the positive outcomes of increased productivity and an improved quality of life for all concerned. Choosing negativity is not a winning strategy for human dignity or business success.