Linda Duxbury weighs in on what ails OC Transpo

Carleton Now: What do you think the root problem is at OC Transpo?

Linda Duxbury: This is not a recent problem. Don’t forget that we had a shooting there (1999) It’s not like all of a sudden we’ve got an issue here. This seems to be a work environment that is characterized by a lot of stress and a lot of bad relationships, and mistrust and miscommunication. This is not something that they have addressed and when you don’t address something it often gets worse rather than better. As a researcher, you know that any organization that has an over focus on money – that’s a real indicator of a work-environment problem.

CN: The company would argue that they have taken steps to address issues in the workplace.

Duxbury: I don’t doubt that they have tried to address the environment but the problem is that you probably have got a real organizational culture issue that is not going to go away by talking about things, having focus groups or having consultants come in and then not actually take their advice. They may say they’ve addressed it but the proof is in the pudding. If they had addressed it, what’s going on right now?

CN: How much of the issue do you think is linked to soured labour relations?

Duxbury: Pretty well all of it. The strike – I am not sure that it had the desired impact. We talk about leadership and it’s not just about Alain Mercier (head of OC Transpo) and him being the only leader here; who is leading the union is also a significant face of the bus company to the public eye and to the drivers. The attitude at that point in time was not helpful. I think what happened is they lost the sympathy of the public. Up until then, they had quite a bit of conflict between management and – to be very honest – we talk about management as management in the bus company but let’s actually go a little broader here and be real – that management is the city council. The managers within the bus company don’t have free reign, they can’t manage like within a private sector context; they’re constrained by their political masters, by a desire to keep bus fares at a certain level – all of that stuff constrains what they are and what they are not able to do. We always talk about the bus company, we talk about the management and we talk about the bus drivers but we’ve really got the citizens of Ottawa, and we’ve got the political arm – all of those folks are in this brew. It would be easier to solve if someone took clear leadership and actually showed a will to solve it. Everybody’s talking about it but nobody’s doing anything.

CN: Is that the key to solving it?

Duxbury: There are lots of things that are key to solving it. We’re not going to get anywhere until sit people down and have a full and frank airing of grievances and that goes on both sides. Let’s be sympathetic to (the bus drivers) too, that is a hugely stressful job and it’s not helped by having a really antagonistic clientele.

CN: In an ideal world, how long would this kind of thing take to solve

Duxbury: It’s never going to get solved if we don’t actually do something to diffuse it. Doing something to diffuse it would have all the players recognizing that the system is broken; all of the players recognizing that while they have legitimate issues and concerns so does everybody else and actually trying to get some of these concerns on the table so that we could figure out a way to address them. First you have to figure out what the problems are second, you have to diffuse the immediate emotions out of the situation and third, you have to look at the structural reward system – all of those kinds of things you’ve got to change so that you can actually change the work environment and the culture.

CN: So are we talking years?

Duxbury: We’re talking years. But it’s not years to something meaningful that people could actually point to as a start of a process. A lot of organizations when they are faced with profound change, they’re so overwhelmed with the amount of change that they’ve got to do, they never start. I am suggesting is that they’ve got to start.

CN: Who has to take the lead in this?

Duxbury: It should be the city government that has to start this ball rolling because they are ultimately the overall masters of the situation. They are the ones who actually have control of all of the levers that could make this work – which is money, which is allowing people to restructure, which is all kinds of stuff. They hold the cards.

CN: Based on your past experience, how would you describe the willingness of corporations – private or public – to change?

Duxbury: We talk about proactive change but most don’t change until they have to. But the problem is they can’t get people to believe in the urgency of the change. With the bus company, you would have no problems convincing all the key stakeholders that it’s really urgent that they have issues address and to make change happen. It gets very difficult to make a change. You can do it but it takes real courage at the senior leadership level.

CN: If they don’t address this and they wait for it to die down, what will happen?

Duxbury: It’s not going to die. That’s my prediction. It hasn’t died down in a decade, why would it of a suddenly be better? It’s not a question of bringing somebody in – they’ve done that before. It’s the question of showing some courage in having a full and frank discussion and about addressing the issues and not sweeping them under the rug and hoping things will change on their own.

CN: If you had one piece of advice for the players in this, what would it be?

Duxbury: Take a deep breath, count to 10 and start to recognize that while you have legitimate concern, so do they (the four key stakeholders) – everybody has to take it down a notch.”

Linda Duxbury is a professor in Carleton’s Sprott School of Business. She is an expert in managing change.

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