Trade union membership in the UK is on the rise. Data from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy records an increase to 6.6 million – up from 6.2 million four years ago- with increases in the public sector, outstripping losses in the private sector.  The pandemic has polarised experience of work, health care, access to education, housing and much more.  Perhaps the appreciation of vulnerability has been a wakeup call - bringing closer appreciation of the benefits of representation and collective organisation for those still in employment. This flush of interest and energy brings huge opportunity for social change – and many trade unions are preparing for the fast-emerging future - investing in emotionally intelligent, authentic and sector specific skills.  Many are drawing on the power of peers – colleagues who fully understand the niche conundrums and are trained to offer the psychological safety necessary for deep learning. 

Such peers can be particularly valuable in supporting the complex transition into leadership and managerial roles in the movement.  Helping avoid the square peg, round hole syndrome, as colleagues fine tune their perceptions of leadership and make sense of what it means to manage well in a trade union. We learn from those around us - we absorb and mirror what we see, hear, and feel.  We gain knowledge from what we read, watch, and are taught in formal learning settings, yet how we behave is primarily developed from the role models around us.  We notice what works, what brings results, what makes a difference in the situations to which we are exposed.   When work revolves around helping people in difficulty at work– collectively or individually – emotions run high, and we learn mostly keenly when emotions are triggered – for better or for worse. With a front seat view - shared with all involved in employment rights issues – of all that can go wrong in the world of people management - poor communication, low levels of trust, sharp practices to cut corners on policies and procedures - finding an appropriate and authentic way to be a trade union manager can be daunting. Any wonder that shortfalls in people management practice, keenly observed and stored in the attic of memory, risk becoming a subliminal and sub-optimal training ground and a default position when the pressure is on? 

But look beyond the nebulous, negative headline grabbing stories we are so often fed, and we find unions engaged in purposeful thought leadership. Listening at the margins, ears to the ground, horizon scanning, mapping possibilities, engaging hearts and minds to co-create workable solutions to complex issues. Agile practices, a re-evaluation of situational leadership and solution focused approaches are gaining traction and a sustainable re-invention is emerging. Below are a number of different approaches which trade union managers can use to draw on the experience of their peers to better gain the skills they need to succeed.

Finding the ‘sweet spot’ as a trade union manager: a good starting place is the ‘manager as coach’ approach, gaining popularity in many sectors. The method is collaborative, constructive and supportive – a good fit for the DNA of the union movement. Based on Whittleworth and Gilbert’s OSCAR model – Outcomes, Situation, Choices (and Consequences), Actions and Review – it combines accessible coaching practice with a clear focus on accountability – the co-creation process between manager and direct report – in the service of the members.  

‘Self as instrument’ and the ‘inner work’ - managing and leading within the trade union movement presents unique challenges.  Investment in one-to-one coaching creates a safe space in which to explore hopes and fears - issues and solutions - both personal and organisational.  The opportunity to step back and reflect on the bigger picture with a trained coach, familiar with this world, can widen perspectives and understanding of what is possible - loosening the knot of issues that overwhelm us and finding workable solutions.  

Learning from peers - mentors skilled in the art of sharing insights, rather than giving advice, can make a huge difference to colleagues in any transitional situation, including moving into managerial roles, completing an apprenticeship, returning from parental leave, after long term sick leave, new to the movement or preparing for retirement.  Ideally someone only slightly further ahead on the journey can be most helpful. (I’ve written more about internal mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities – in the IPA article on “From Branch to Root”.)

Reverse mentoring – where a mentor supports a colleague more senior to them – is also a great way to share learning.  For example, with social media skills– digital natives and adopters have much to learn from each other and can forge better understanding across silos and organisational layers.

Activist approach – well suited to activist, reflective and pragmatic learning styles, action learning is a tried and tested approach for building cross organisational peer learning. Groups of colleagues meet regularly, with one member nominated and trained as the ‘set facilitator’. Members of the group bring issues for shared exploration - offering gentle challenge and support, insights from lived experience and holding each other accountable for delivery of action points.

All of these approaches provide ways to engage future generations in a solid understanding of the importance of this vital work and how to do it well, hopefully providing us with a new generation of skilled and effective trade union managers who can lead the revival of trade unionism in the UK.

Please contact us for more information.

Katherine Bassey is a former Head of Staff Engagement and Innovation for UNISON, now freelance executive coach, coaching supervisor, and facilitator.

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