Transdev, by its own reckoning a world leader in public transport, has been in dispute with its drivers on the Dublin (Ireland)  light rail system for the past few months. Now, this is not about taking sides and not about defending the Little Red Riding-hood train drivers against the big bad wolf of Transdev. It IS about claiming that something is rotten, very wrong, when two groups of people in the Company are failing to reach agreement on how key employees of the company should be rewarded for their contribution.  Something is always very wrong, I believe, when people can’t reach agreement but it would seem to be acutely so in this case. What is wrong that drivers, it is claimed, are demanding rates of pay way in excess of what drivers in other countries get paid? What is wrong that a company, allegedly “in a grave situation” according to its CEO, cannot make sense of this situation to its own employees?  What is wrong that all of these people, for whom providing a service is their raison d’être, can walk away from that goal if their own individual interests are negatively affected?  A lot is wrong and the answers to the questions above as to what is wrong are contained in the questions themselves– Transdev is not a Company at all in any real sense because, like many other businesses, there is no real sense of ‘Company’, no real sense of a united bunch of people collaborating in providing a valuable service of which everyone is proud, to which everyone wants to contribute and from which everyone shares in the benefits.

Putting Bread on the Table.

This could sound very aspirational or pie in the sky.  I don’t believe it is. Some weeks back I chatted with a train driver as he alighted from his cabin after having taken me and a few hundred other people from Cork to Dublin in good time, travelling at over 100 mph at times. I remarked on this to him and on the job he did and the responsibility he had. “Well, it puts bread on the table.” was his reply.  Yes it does, I thought, but what a narrow and impoverished description of what he and his colleagues in Iarnrod Eireann (Irish Rail Network) are doing on a daily basis.  You might ask what’s wrong with ‘putting bread on the table’ and I would answer:  the very same things that are wrong in Transdev.   – it indicates that there is no real Company and no meaningful work. Who was it said:  “A man doesn’t live on bread alone”? People, all of us, need meaning in our lives and in all we do. You might claim it is meaningful for my driver to sit in a cabin and look at monitors and move controls for two and half hours.  But this, again, is a very impoverished version of the wonder of what he really does in transporting a few hundred people safely and comfortably from one city to another.

“No man is an Island”.

Like people in Transdev, my driver is equally unaware of the fact that he does not do this as an individual, but as part of a ‘company’ of  planners, technicians, investors, managers, line repair people and a host of other colleagues who make this little miracle happen every day and several times every day. He does not feel and is not helped to feel that he is one critical part of a  complex and wonderful entity that we call a ‘Company’ (Company = Con Pan…sharing bread)  and that all together provides a service to which everyone contributes and in which everyone shares.  This is the true, full  and rich meaning of what he does.  But if we strip him and his job of this meaning and reduce it to simply a ‘payment for services rendered’, we are robbing him of the most important thing in his life and in everyone’s life– meaning. And, once meaning is absent, the sky is the limit in terms of the efforts to replace it with money, be that 13% 23% or 53%.

Carrots and Sticks

The efforts to replace meaning in the case of Transdev are the carrot of productivity and the stick of protective notice. Neither will work, of course, and will only worsen the conflict by prolonging the war.  The answer is an obvious one–share the reality, share the challenges facing the company, facing everybody, share the running of the company and share some of the benefits or rewards that accrue.  Unfortunately, this is very unlikely to happen because Transdev, like most business organisations, does not see that they should share anything with their people  because they do not see their employees as key stakeholders. And they do not see themselves as a real company united and collaborating to provide a service of which everyone is proud and from which everyone benefits.  Have I said that before?  Well ok.  Sorry.  But without this there is little meaning, collaboration, common ground or real job satisfaction, whatever about the bread on the table or the Mercs in the car parks.

The solution to this impasse is simple and wonderful but it will not be found within the existing, traditional business mind-sets.