Stuck Between Management and the Front Lines

Dear David,

I work in a unionized workplace. I have great respect for unions and the intent of protecting frontline workers. However, once you are no longer considered a frontline employee you no longer have union rights/representation. This can create a pocket of employees, foremen in this case, that are not executive leadership, but are not frontline employees that have bargaining rights—or in other words there is no psychological safety or protection. How do you create a climate conducive to safety within this pocket? Or how do I address it in my department and create a different experience in my area of influence?


Seeking Safety

Dear Seeking Safety,

Thanks for a great question. I’ve worked in organizations where foremen were left hanging—not a part of the union labor force, but not a part of management either. Usually, these foremen had worked their way up from labor jobs, and many didn’t have college degrees. But managers were required to have college degrees, often in engineering. As a result, the foremen felt caught in the middle, not accepted by labor or by management.

However, just because foremen don’t have the contractual protection a union provides, doesn’t mean you can’t create an environment where they feel safe and valued. I’ll use our Six Sources of Influence™ to suggest actions you can take to make these employees more respected and secure in their positions.

Personal Motivation. Since the concern you raise is safety, begin by addressing their fears. They’ve moved from a job that had contractual safety to a job that doesn’t. But I bet they are still relatively safe from job loss. Share information with them to alleviate any unrealistic fears. For example, show them the data on the percentage of foremen who are terminated during their first few years—it will be a small number. Give them clear performance objectives and a realistic path for achieving them. Show the employees that they have ample resources and time for achieving these goals. Ambiguity is the father of fear; information is its cure. Don’t sugarcoat the facts, because that would undercut your own credibility. Share the good, the bad, and the ugly on a regular basis.

Personal Ability. Make them more valuable. Foremen are already incredibly valuable. Like sergeants and other noncommissioned officers in the military, they have an outsized impact on their team’s performance. Invest in their training—in project management, workplace safety, cost control, and leadership skills—and give them opportunities to put their new skills to work. Document their successes, and give them visibility with more senior managers.

Social Motivation and Ability. Foremen are the “connectors” between labor and management. Help to make these connections stronger, so they can play this role even better. Foremen need to have credibility with both groups. I’ve already suggested giving them visibility with senior managers. Make sure they have regular meetings with a variety of managers who can share their perspectives and learn from the foremen. Make sure this communication channel is frequent, direct, two-way, and honest.

In the same way, make sure the foremen have strong communication with their teams and with the labor force more broadly. Make sure they meet regularly with shop stewards, union local officials, and—of course—with their teams. Again, these meetings need to be two-way—each party should be gathering concerns and sharing perspectives. Labor and management both need to see foremen as good listeners and as a source of frank, honest information.

Structural Motivation. Make sure the foremen understand their future career paths. In most organizations, foremen have many options for growing their incomes and their careers. Having promotional opportunities should be a huge motivator for becoming a foreman in the first place. Identify managers in your organization who have moved up from being foremen, and invite them in to talk to your foremen. Ask them to talk about their careers, and to give their perspectives on the organization. Your foremen should see what their careers could be like in three, five, or ten years.

Structural Ability. Create times, places, and opportunities for foremen to connect with each other, with labor, and with management. You can do this on your own, or in a more formal way. One of our clients holds an annual foreman retreat. Foremen from across their twenty manufacturing facilities gather for three days at a nice retreat center. Senior leaders, senior union officials, and others attend. The focus is on listening to and learning from foremen.

I hope these ideas can help. Look for ways to combine ideas from several of the Six Sources of Influence. Our research shows that combining strategies from four or more sources can make you ten times more likely to succeed.

Best of luck,


About the Author

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.