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  • MANAGING A MORE FLEXIBLE * WORKFORCE

    * (read de-unionised)

    Two powerful geo-economic forces are converging on the established industrial relations structure in Australia. On the one hand the move towards increased globalisation is pressuring managers to be more selective in the staff they employ, where they employ them, and the conditions of work and remuneration they provide. On the other hand, the role and influence of the trade unions is being debated as witnessed by the present Federal Government’s pursuit of more flexible labour laws, and indeed the questioning by many in the Labour Party of the level of power exercised within the Party by the union movement.

    The globalisation juggernaught is likely to continue its path despite the opposition of dedicated interest groups. As corporate conglomerates grow and have to perform in an increasingly competitive arena, the imperative for CEOs to maximise shareholder value will become even more important. A likely result will be fewer jobs and even greater demands on individuals to produce more for less.

    Within Australia, more flexible labour laws and decreased union influence will result, at least according to its proponents, in a more efficient workforce and therefore greater productivity and wealth for all.

    But what will all this mean for management? Will CEOs be unfetterd in their pursuit of shareholder value by being able to select and sack with impunity? Will managers at last be able to ‘manage’ their worforce without the interference of unions?

    While globalisation and further liberalisation of our labour laws and structure should result in a more productive workforce, managers at all levels must be aware of the lessons of history.

    Unionism in Australia had its genesis in the abysmal conditions imposed on our first workers – the convicts and emancipists – by the ‘skimmed milk’ (they were certainly less than the cream) of English soldiery who were sent to guard them and became their ‘bosses’. More often than not, poor management was exercised by arrogant, authoritative and selfish men whose sole purpose was to maximise their own interests and those of their government and corporate cronies. Little wonder that the workers felt the need to protect themselves and their interests by uniting to form what became a sophisticated and powerful force in Australian society.

    Many managers still complain that they cannot manage efficiently because of the influence and power of unions. Yet a strong case can be made that the power of unions is in direct proportion to the weaknesses of management; not necessarily to stand up to and fight the unions, but in allowing working relationships and conditions to deteriorate to such an extent that workers have no option but to join unions to protect the rights they should be given in the first place.

    The lesson then, is that if increased efficiency, productivity and wealth are to become a reality through these two powerful converging forces, managers at all levels must not repeat the errors of the past. They must do more than manage their workforce – they must lead them, for while management is concerned more with systems and processes, efficiency and effectiveness, leadership, no matter how it is defined involves inspiring others, creating vision, sharing goals, and achievement with and through others. The arrogant, authoritative and selfish management practices of the past (and in some cases the present) must be replaced by enlightend leadership in which credible managers strike a balance between the need to achieve the task, build and maintain effective teams and develop the individuals within their workforce.

    Failure to lead rather than manage may well result in a case of history repeating itself.

    Peter McDougall

    January 2002