I work with a sheriff’s office that is partially unionized. The unionization process was a two-year ordeal for one particular office, and in the end, it was decided that the staff would unionize, but the senior supervisors would not. This created a lot of complexity and division within the office.
When their staff were considering joining the union, the manager and assistant manager of the department reached out to me — not because they are anti-union but because they were convinced that they were terrible leaders and terrible supervisors. They worried their staff felt unhappy, mistreated, and otherwise poorly led and therefore needed a union for protection.
During the unionization process, morale at the office took a nosedive. Trust diminished. There were things they couldn’t talk about. Suspicion ruled. The leadership internalized their worry and stress, thinking what did we do wrong?
During one conversation with leadership, I asked, “Do you even know why they’re interested in joining the union? Have you asked?”
It was a simple question that ended up being really insightful.
Their answer? “No. We don’t know.”
“But your speculation is that it’s because you’re doing something wrong,” I suggested.
“Yes,” they admitted.
Failing to ask that one simple question of why led to nearly two years of frustration, poor communication, reading into things, worrying about even more things, and being afraid to say what needed to be said.
Needless to say, the outcome was not stellar.
So leadership called me in to help rebuild their team.
Like I said, they were convinced the unionized staff, and possibly their supervisors who also considered the union themselves, resented their leadership and were dissatisfied at work. But lo and behold! We found out that quite the opposite was true.
Unbeknownst to management, the supervisors, at least, didn’t ask to become part of the union. As it turns out, they were asked to join by the union, and before they knew it, they had gotten swept up in a momentum they couldn’t control, that had started with the staff.
The more they learned, it became abundantly clear that the staff had absolutely ZERO issues with their direct management’s leadership — or the way the sheriff’s office was treating them.
What we also discovered is that the supervisors saw the union as a way to fight the county — with which they were clearly unhappy — and get better pay and benefits. They were in it for the union leverage, not to spite the sheriff’s office leadership.
One other great discovery we made: it wasn’t just the leadership that felt awful about the whole situation. The supervisors felt stilted, frustrated, and annoyed by the division within the team and the lack of communication that occurred because of the things the union wouldn’t allow them to talk about. They couldn’t wait for it all to be over, either.
The instant that became clear, the energy in the room changed. The clarity increased 100-fold. Everything they thought was a problem, it turns out, was not a problem.
Once everyone realized this had been a painful experience for the entire office, forgiveness and reconciliation was easy. No one had meant any harm. There was no malice. There was only fear and suspicion (of which we’ve all been guilty).
Lesson learned: Remember to ask clarifying questions. Seek understanding and transparency. Always. Keep your worries in check. Worry can either be debilitating or a fabulous tool to lead you to better questions if you can avoid the pit of self-judgment.