Via Business Today Egypt, by Ashraf el Shafaki
How to handle employee protests the smart way
Egyptians, for the most part, were accepting of authority and were not the type to protest. If they didn’t like their jobs, they usually complained to those close to them such as coworkers, family members, friends and, in some cases, even to company clients. Yet they rarely revolted against authority, believing that it would be useless and would not solve their problems.
Come the January 25 Revolution and all that suddenly changed. What had never been imagined by the opposition happened: The Egyptian president stepped down as a result of a revolution ignited by the people. This dramatic incident has broken all norms and changed mind sets. The consensus now has become: revolting against authority can indeed result in real change and make the authorities give in to the demands of those who have long been under their control.
While protests broke out across many public and private organizations following the January 25 Revolution, some organizations in Egypt are experiencing their highest levels of positive energy ever.
Resala, an 11-year-old Egyptian NGO, has been enjoying great positive energy among its volunteers and employees. What’s the secret behind the resilience of such an organization? Why didn’t it suffer from internal protest as many other organizations did?
By looking closely at how Resala has been structured and how things work there, we can deduce valuable lessons that may help us build more resilient organizations that lend themselves to rapid expansion while retaining strong internal dynamic stability.
Fireproofing your organization
Resala has seven branches in Cairo and over 50 others across Egypt. It boasts over 200,000 volunteers. After the revolution, there were no revolts at Resala even though it employed hundreds and dealt with thousands of volunteers, most of whom are students or fresh graduates. Even the Resala employees are mostly fresh graduates.
Why haven’t they revolted despite the fact that their age and education fit the profile of those who sparked the Egyptian revolution? The answer is simple: At Resala, democracy is key. Resala is run in a highly flexible, radically decentralized and democratic way. It feeds on creativity and openness. Both young employees and volunteers at Resala are empowered rather than forced to do what management thinks is right.
Resala Chairman Sherif Abdelazim maintains open channels of communication with the NGO’s volunteers despite their huge numbers. He attends gatherings, meets them face to face, listens to them attentively, cherishes their ideas and encourages them to implement their visions.
Sharing the vision
It is essential that all employees at an organization be aware of its vision. Abdelazim continuously instills Resala’s vision in his employees and volunteers alike every time he meets them. Resala envisions a nation where everyone would volunteers to help others without asking for anything in return. By instilling the vision in the minds and hearts of your employees you give them a sense of purpose and provide them with direction rather than just waiting for their paycheck from month to month.
Listening to feedback
The third element of an integrated program to avoid protests even before they happen is to listen attentively to employees. Listen to their problems, suggestions and ideas. Use their creativity to benefit the company.Do not suppress their ideas in the belief that management knows best. Yes, management might have a bird’s eye view of the whole picture, yet the rank and file are closer to the day-to-day activities of the company and can see things up close that management might not be able to spot.
Resala is all about taking its employee and volunteer feedback seriously and acting upon it. Most Resala activities have started from the bottom up and were not ideas imposed by management.
Employee of the month program, certificates of appreciation and public recognition are what keep Resala employees and volunteers moving forward with lots of positive energy. The monthly Resala newsletter distributed inside and outside Resala has the names and photos of its high achievers.
Recognition is also delivered to those who deserve it through regular celebrations at Resala during which they receive certificates of appreciation from Abdelazim.
The contributions of employees and volunteers are mentioned during such celebrations and also in the Resala monthly newsletter with accompanying photos. Such practices motivate employees and build pride and commitment to the organization.
At Resala, employees and volunteers are given the freedom to implement their ideas and make them a reality while depending on their own resources. They are given great responsibilities. Rather than dictating to them what they must do exactly, they are only given guidelines and lots of motivation.
Fighting the fire
What if your organization was not built to be fireproof and is now suffering from outbreaks of protests? Don’t despair, there’s no need to trash your organization and build another one from scratch. In fact, you can channel the flames of protest to benefit your organization rather than work against it. In the words of Bill Mollison, cofounder of Permaculture, a sustainable living methodology, “the problem is the solution.”
Redirecting the energy
Instead of resisting a revolt in your company, turn it to your advantage. Take employee complaints and see how this information and this energy can be channelled to the benefit of the company. Taha Hussein created Ain Shams University when he was the Minister of Education in Egypt as a result of student revolts in the technical institutes that have since been integrated into the university. Interestingly enough, this was achieved just before the 1952 revolution.
Follow these steps to convert a protest into a positive force working to improve your organization rather than bringing it to its knees:
1. Ask employees to select a group from among themselves to represent them.
2. Meet with that group. Listen to all their complains and requests attentively and write them down.
3. Ask the group to prioritize their requests.
4. Be frank and transparent with the group. Explain the organization’s position, it’s current state, resources and limitations.
5. Start with the highest priority request. Ask the group how such a request can be achieved in light of the company’s current position. Let them provide you with their own suggestions.
6. Reach a realistic solution.
7. Move on to the next request and repeat the same steps until all the requests have been discussed and realistic solutions have been reached.
Note that ‘solutions’ here mean compromises. If you allow employees to speak freely and listen to them and show sincere appreciation of their ideas and suggestions, you might be surprised by their creativity. Solutions can be things that benefit the employees and the well-being of the organization at the same time.
For your organization to secure a sense of stability there is no need for it to be rigid. In fact, the more rigid an organization is, the more prone it is to fall apart whenever its surrounding environment shakes. Structuring your organization so that it can be more flexible, more internally transparent and with functional open communication channels between employees and management will go a long way toward having your organization sail safely across any future storms that may come by. bt