Little Things Count

In our book Unleashing Human Energy Through Culture Change, we introduced two concepts to describe the “old” culture at the GM Tonawanda Engine Plant: “industrial warfare” and “industrial depression.”  Industrial warfare refers to the level of negativity and mutual hostility that existed between management and workers at the plant. Industrial depression was the resulting condition that sapped human energy from the workforce.  Symptoms of industrial depression were high absenteeism and turnover rates, reduced effort by workers, poor product quality, and low productivity. Workers and managers couldn’t wait until their shift was over and it was time to leave the plant.  And they did not look forward to returning the next workday.

This toxic culture was fueled by autocratic managers who tightly controlled workflow and limited most workers to jobs that were boring and tedious.  This culture had persisted throughout most GM plants from as far back as the 1930s, when GM decided to fight the UAW and the workers they represented.  During the migration of workers from the South and Europe in the 1940s and ‘50s, workers were generally uneducated. They tolerated their negative work environment because they were happy to have a job that paid a decent wage.  Not much time was spent by management trying to understand or relate to the human side of workers; they were treated as manual labor with little consideration for them as persons.

As work became more technical and workers more educated, the toxic culture spread, and worker dissatisfaction increased.  Added to this was the insecurity of workers not knowing when there would be a layoff and the inevitable personal toll that would accompany unemployment.

As a result of changing expectations of workers and the intensified competition that GM was feeling in the marketplace, it should not have surprised management that its plants would require a different kind of leadership to obtain the results they demanded.  Yet, management continued to engage in autocratic leadership and treated workers with strict controls and rules that exacerbated dissatisfaction and deepened industrial depression. 

One doesn’t need to be a psychologist to know that something had to change.  The plant was failing to provide a work environment that could support both changing worker expectations and higher productivity.  Quality of work life and job security had become major demands of workers. Management’s response was to continue doing the same things that helped to make work life intolerable and add to workers’ insecurity about their jobs.

When he took over management of the Tonawanda Engine Plant, Don Rust decided that success at the plant would only be achieved when managers and workers began to work together.  He started with a few simple practices to reduce tensions and send the message to workers that they were appreciated and worthy of respect. Here are a few of the little things that made a difference.

  1. Taking time each day to walk through as many work areas as possible, visiting with workers on their jobsites and listening to what they had to say.  This had the effect of closing the gap between management and labor. Workers responded favorably.    

  2. Encouragement can be powerful and invigorating.  A worker can go from a bad day to a very good day with just a few words of support.  Workers want to be appreciated, and when they are, they feel good. The fact that someone in management took the time to listen to them at their workstation was a significant step toward thawing the icy relationship between management and the workforce.    

  3. Create a sense of pride in working for the company.  Every worker at the plant was given business cards that clearly stated the workers name, along with the title “Partner” clearly spelled out.  This had never been done in a GM plant. It was met with enthusiasm and a sense of pride by workers. Workers who have since retired still hand out these business cards at plant reunions.      

These three little ways of relating to workers were simple and impactful.  They served to reduce tension while recognizing workers as people who made significant contributions to their company.  It does not require a big budget and a great expenditure of time and effort to win over workers. It is the little things that count most.

Marie Pazych