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Analysis: New Congress' Orientation Should Include Collaboration Course

The new Congress needs to learn some lessons from other diametrically opposed groups who have learned to work together.

With this New Year’s unsatisfying resolution of the fiscal cliff debate, and the looming debt ceiling debate rescheduled for Valentine’s Day, the 113th Congress and its members from the Republican and Democratic parties inherit an increasingly debilitating legacy from Congresses of the past decade: the inability to work together to solve our country’s grave problems.

It has become cliché to harken back to the days of President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill, who, despite polar-opposite ideologies, managed to hammer out legislative and fiscal compromises that delivered America from major crises. But as the recent fiscal cliff debacle demonstrated, no such desire or ability exists today. Despite seething frustration among current political leaders and the public’s record-low confidence in them, little has been proposed to reverse this 20-plus year slide. Attempts to “throw the bums out” and to bring in new administrations and Congresses have yielded no better leadership or governance, leading many to wonder what needs to be done to save the American democratic model and its free enterprise system.

This is a question that our nation’s senior management and labor leaders – who often represent polar-opposite ideologies -- have faced when seemingly intractable differences have threatened the viability of their businesses. Those who have succeeded invariably credit training and structured processes that enabled them to learn and practice collaborative behaviors. Through intense collaborative leadership training, they learned how to identify and articulate interests rather than positions; to effectively broach “undiscussable” topics and issues; and to recognize conflicts as healthy opportunities for dialogue, instead of hot-button arguments to be avoided at all costs. As a result, they were able to identify common goals and to find innovative solutions to obstacles. Countless examples of management-labor collaborative successes exist today in healthcare, major manufacturing and even government agencies:

Kaiser-Permanente has what is heralded as the nation’s longest-running, most productive labor-management partnership—and this, in the health-care sector, which is fraught with the challenges of a competitive environment,  government intervention, dictates from the insurance industry and seemingly endless attempts to completely overhaul the healthcare system as a whole.

Labor and management leaders at Boeing-Philly, home of the V-22 and Chinook helicopters, cite their collaborative process as the basis both for a turn-around begun 15 years ago that saved the facilities from being shuttered and the current employee engagement process that routinely returns unprecedented cost, quality and productivity results.

In three short years, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union have transformed what many would say was the worst labor-management environment in the federal sector into a model of collaboration. Employees, managers and union reps now work together on procedural, technological and air-space related issues that improve the safety and efficiency of the national air space. 

As the new members of the 113th Congress become more accustomed to life on Capitol Hill and begin shaping federal policies, all should be required to enroll in bipartisan collaboration training. It may take several sessions of Congress before any of these freshmen attain positions of leadership in the House or Senate, but their influence would be felt immediately in how they interact with other members and how they voice their opinions to the public. Even a slight shift from the current name-calling and hyper-partisan demagoguery toward mutually respectful language and behavior would be encouraging.

If labor and management leaders can learn to set aside their differences to focus on their shared interest in keeping U.S. citizens working in productive, successful organizations, then surely our elected leaders can learn to set aside their differences to find solutions based on their shared interest in keeping America safe and prosperous. 

Cathy Wright is vice president of Overland Resource Group, which specializes in large-scale organizational change, designed and led collaboratively by management and labor leaders.

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