The first thing that might pop into mind as you read this question is the seemingly inherent dissonance between company leadership and the works council. After all, both parties pursue very different interests. And we must admit, throughout our over 20 years of traveling, working with countless businesses on nearly every sector and of every possible size, we have seen more battle lines than peaceful unity.
But is that inherent? Yes – when feuding is the only alternative. No – when both strive for a good future. Or in the words of Ann-Kristin Achleitner, economics professor, “Participation unites, not divides. Work together in the interest of your company.”
Our experience shows there are several reasons why conflicts between executive level and works council constantly arise. For one, the difference in focus. Corporate thought and action demand a businessperson hold three perspectives in mind to be successful – the present, the past and the future. The present must be kept up and running and the past must be honored so that traditions or values are carried over into the future. Most important is the future perspective. In this respect, keeping the here and now going has but one ultimate purpose – to secure and shape the company’s future. Most works councils we have engaged with thus far, are focused primarily on the present moment. What is good in attentiveness training is disastrous for strategic company planning. It’s a bit like eating a whole cake at one go. It was tasty and fun, but there’s no more cake the next day. Not to mention the dreadful impact sugar shock has on your body.
The second cause of conflicts between business executives and work councils is that very few leaders have neither bothered to learn the work council’s purpose, nor read the Works Constitution Act. So how can I support my works council if don’t know their purpose? […]
Therefore, this urgent plea goes out to every entrepreneur, proprietor and CEO: You represent your employer and every one of your employees is – according to the Works Constitution Act – a colleague. The central purpose of leadership is working for and with people, providing them with development opportunities. For us, this is leadership. As ever, your works council draws their salary from your company, ergo, your works council is an employee. Hence, it is your responsibility and duty of care to attend to your works council. This is a fact! If you don’t talk with your works council, someone else will, namely the union representative. Then, my friend, things get political – and political systems (like all systems) are only interested in their continued existence. So, then, you can forget focusing on your company’s future. You’ll be too busy contending with the next conflict. This must be avoided at all costs!
Some time ago, as we were moderating a workshop with the works council of a mid-sized metal-working company, one member said we obviously took the employer’s side. “But that’s just the way things are, isn’t it?” he deducted, “our employer’s paying you.” “Whether you believe it or not,” we replied, “we are neither on the employer’s side nor the employee’s side. We are pro- enterprise, pro-work-location. We don’t really care who suffers if anyone does. We are consultants and loyal to our mission. And our mission is to represent our clients as if their business were our own. Our clients book a vigorous sparring partner, not an accommodating coach or trainer. We work closely with people, build relationships based on trust and respect. If the situation calls for it, we respectfully challenge a works council member just as we respectfully challenge a CEO. That’s guaranteed.” Citing our slogan, Your next step is our goal!, we convinced the skeptical council member that we firmly take the side of his company’s future and so should a respectful, trusting relationship between the works council and company executives.
Let’s look at the third common reason for discord: works council members are elected. Please don’t misunderstand us, we are for democratic processes! But simply because someone is elected to a position doesn’t mean they are equipped to fill it. Council members are no different than politicians when elected for the first time. They carry an enormous responsibility but have little idea what’s in store. It’s the same for people taking on association or volunteer work.
In contrast, every company leader has prepared over at least ten years for her or his position. You have worked on every executive level, maybe even directed a variety of company departments. Only then do you arrive at executive management, perhaps as CEO or on the board of directors. Employees elected to the works council have little or no time to prepare for their new duties and yet, are plunged into discussions with highly informed leaders. Newly elected works council members do not have a grasp on the concept of company as an entire system. How could they?
An excerpt from the book “Leadership is More – 27 Questions We Too Can Answer” written by Gianni, Jan & Marcello Liscia, 2022