Too much deference can put job relationships out of kilter, writes Helen Frances.
An attitude of deference pervades New Zealand's working culture, says CTU president Helen Kelly. What she describes as a dominant expression of our culture - "don't rock the boat, don't make a fuss, don't get above your station, grin and bear it" - affects working relationships between individuals and groups, men and women, government, employer and employees.
"What I see happening is this proposition that employers are some sort of charitable organisation gifting jobs to people who are the beneficiaries of those jobs. In that relationship, employees shouldn't bite the hand that feeds them. They should be grateful and business should be given all deference."
The phrase she hears often, "you're lucky to have a job", assumes a hierarchy in which the workforce is dependent on employers, rather than the two groups being mutually interdependent participants in the economy. "The Hobbit was a classic. Warners was bringing 2000 jobs to New Zealand and the performers were ungrateful simply wanting to collectively bargain." Another example was the media headline about two workers at McDonald's saying how they would continue to struggle on the minimum wage increase.
"Two workers are prepared to bite the hand that feeds them."
Kelly says adult-to-adult transactions take an equitable, problem-solving approach to employment issues and some workplaces have this to varying degrees. PSA and Auckland Council have "an exciting project in the super city to try and genuinely involve the whole workforce in decisions".
But where communication is not worked out and a deferential hierarchical model rules, tantrums, sulking, bullying, blaming and other behaviours reminiscent of parent/child type interactions can erupt, particularly in times of stress, such as restructuring, closures, economic downturns, health and safety crises.
"It's quite complicated," says Transactional Analysis counsellor Anne Tucker, founder and former owner of Stratos, an Auckland-based organisation that offers employee assistance programmes.
"In situations where there is unequal power, what it plays into is the kind of relationships we have had with people in authority - messages in our head from people [such as parents] and how they were with us. It happens at an unconscious level so that makes it not so easy to tap into what is going on. That is why it's good to have conversations around how we will treat one another because then you have a basis to start from."
She gives the hypothetical example of a boss being stroppy at work. "[He] reminds me of my grandfather and I was really anxious about him. When I am in this person's company, I become like a little, fearful child. So rather than reacting to my boss as a human being and saying 'I don't respond very appropriately when you yell at me in front of other people", good adult stuff, I instead respond as if he is my grandfather."
She often explains this to people when they are struggling with somebody at work, asking who the person reminds them of. "They'll say - 'oh that is just how my father used to treat me, or my mother or uncle or whoever'." Conversely, "if I had a fantastic relationship with my father and, if someone in the workplace has that style, I will respond positively".
Tucker works with people to identify their values as a team and organisation. "This is about being respectful. If someone behaves in a way that isn't honouring these values how will you deal with that? What they decide becomes part of the agreement."
And understanding personality type can often explain people's different work styles and areas of conflict. A drive for continual change does not necessarily work well for employees who prefer working step by step and knowing what is expected of them.
Tucker thinks a tripartite structure (between government, employer and worker representatives) is about parties agreeing to work together in a way that is equal and considerate - from the adult position of "I'm OK you're OK".
"It's about looking after myself and it's also about looking after other people" - something that can be difficult when people are under duress - hence the importance of preparatory work.
"I would love businesses to have the fundamental sense that everyone is valued and respected, it doesn't matter what the job is - so that we can just get on and make a reasonable living for everybody."
In place of deference, which inhibits criticism and results in confrontation, Kelly advocates a more egalitarian model that works out how to communicate and benefit from everyone's input. She also wants workplaces to utilise the diverse skills that people bring to work - such as the Cambodian security guard who could help translate in court and the multi-skilled Pacific Island women who work in hospital catering.
At Auckland Council, human resources director Alan Brookbanks says they are working in partnership with the PSA. While there are challenges, there is a will to work together and change on both sides - a far cry from the deferential model. Work to identify values and build the culture began under CEO Doug Mackay.
"The PSA came to us with a request about how we could start working together more often in the context of the new council [and Doug] established a pretty positive rapport with the then PSA delegates."
In the Collective Agreement, both organisations commit "to work together as partners to develop a high-performing workplace based upon trust and active engagement of everyone" in the workplace, including the PSA.
Out of about 6500 staff, about 2500 are union members. Brookbanks said they used an experienced facilitator with a group of managers and PSA delegates to work out what partnership meant, taking a 15-year view of the organisation. They discussed what the partnership meant in terms of leadership, how they would work together and confronted issues such as job security and technology.
Interest-based problem-solving rather than positional bargaining is the preferred model for negotiation - both partners steering in a more workable direction.