A feather to fly with: What Qantas must do to create a viable organisation

by 31 Oct 2011

It is painful to watch the very public disputes between Qantas and many of its staff. The company says it is committed to 'engaging and developing our people', and the chairman states that 'Qantas employees represent the Australian spirit at its finest'. Yet the company does not seem to know how to forge a constructive relationship with its people. So we are treated to an ugly and somewhat predictable set piece battle in which highly paid executives seek to reduce labour costs, pilots abuse their position by soliciting public support from the cockpit and baggage handlers strike when the market is most sensitive. Same old, same old. It is unedifying, it is destroying shareholder value in the short term and there is no evidence that the conflict will lead to value creation in the long term.

For some years now, the global airline industry has been a crucible for HR experiments as airlines tried different strategies to reduce costs in ferociously competitive markets. Lots of things have been tried; confrontation and pitched battles with unions, conflict resolution, outsourcing, flexible work rules, different staff selection methods, training for teamwork, supervisory coaching, partnering with unions, captains as leaders of the flight departure process, cross-functional accountabilities and so on. These strategies have typically been combined to achieve both absolute cost reduction and productivity enhancement, with the former being commonly referred to as 'low road' and the latter as 'high road'. With the lower cost structure of its Jetstar business in mind, Qantas seems to be focused mainly on low road strategies to reduce pay rates and benefits.

Across the industry, there is little evidence to suggest that any of these strategies will produce durable outcomes unless they are part of a wide-reaching, enlightened plan to link the personal motivation of employees to desired commercial outcomes. Helping the company achieve this objective should be the mission statement of the Qantas HR director and a central objective of the Qantas management team and board.
How can Qantas create a new relationship with its 31,000 staff, one that reflects engagement in common cause rather than traditional, adversarial, win-lose positions? This is a very big subject, but some of the required elements of a new, twenty first century, model are outlined below.

Transparency of strategy. By its very nature, common cause requires the mission to be a shared one. This means that Qantas's strategic and operational agenda must not only be clearly communicated to employees, it must be accepted by them as feasible and likely to result in their reasonable needs being met.

Sense of higher purpose. Twenty first century HR models start with the premise that work should be a 'pilgrimage of identity' (to use a lovely expression coined by author David Whyte) rather than a necessary evil. If we want our people to express a firm persuasion in their work we must start with this idea and create a perennial conversation about how the workplace can enrich and enliven rather than enervate. The ideas that flow from this conversation then become core elements of the business model.

Going beyond 'work-life balance'. The new HR models recognise that people cannot, and do not, park their needs at the door when they come to work and that the idea of work-life balance (where most needs are met outside the workplace) is primitive and outdated. For work to be a triumph of existence the workplace must provide the opportunity for individuals to satisfy many, if not most, of their deficit motivation and self-actualising needs.

This may sound esoteric but it is, in fact, intensely practical. If we want to release and utilise the energy of our people we must tap it at the wellspring of needs. When we do this, a new type of HR contract emerges where accountability for results is a natural outcome of the way the organisation works rather than a forced outcome.

Satisfying deficit motivation needs is about meeting, in many different ways, the need for safety and security, belonging and esteem. Meeting higher needs such as the need for truth, beauty, aliveness, wholeness, and meaning has not been a traditional focus for most businesses but is becoming a source of real advantage for leading companies.   

Choosing attitudes. The new HR models understand how important attitude is. Attitude creates disposition; disposition creates behaviour and behaviour drives outcomes. Attitude is a choice and good choices can be taught, cultivated and re-enforced. This starts at the top and it is very infectious. When we chose our attitude (as opposed to simply falling into an attitude based on habit), the common result is productivity, playfulness, service and care.

Having honest conversations. When we are transparent, reasonable, and honest the organisation can develop relationships based on trust. When trust is established, it is possible to have the courageous conversations that are so necessary to a vibrant, successful community.  

Creating a high quality workplace. The workplace has both classical and romantic dimensions. The former is critically important to order, control and efficiency. The latter shapes creativity. A workplace that is rich in classic quality is a best-practice one that makes good use of information and has a sound strategy, is rigorous in the way that it makes decisions, respects the good traditions of the business, has good quality assets, and is technically proficient.

A workplace that is rich in romantic quality seeks to have a dialogue with its unknown future, is willing to experiment, welcomes behaviour that moves it closer to its 'cutting edge', and demonstrates a love of design and beauty in the physical working environment.

If it is to be successful, Qantas needs a renaissance in its understanding of, and approach to, its workforce of 31,000 souls; a renaissance that breaks from the old twentieth century mindset that is characterising current behaviour. That renaissance needs to start now and be driven from the top. It must start with a picture of the nature of the new relationship Qantas will have with its staff, and of the barriers to achieving it.

About the author

Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of 'Corpus RIOS - The how and what of business strategy'. His web site corpusrios.com contains more material on this and related topics