Years ago I was the CHRO for Banco ABN AMRO Real in São Paulo, Brazil. It was the turn of the Century, or should I say, the turn of the Millennium, an era when Brazil was gearing up for the election, in 2002, of President Lula, a union leader who would become the first Brazilian President coming from the working class without a college education.

Worker unions in Brazil were largely despised by employers, dismissed as political radicals and trouble makers who should be fought with the same tenacity their leaders showed in protests at the factory gates, with the same persistence that Lula was showing as a candidate, running as a presidential candidate for the fourth time.

The banking workers’ union was one of the most powerful and influential in the country. They usually organized nation-wide strikes at least once a year, just before salary negotiations were due in September. After a lot of mutual verbal aggression with the employers at the negotiation table and over the media, sometimes followed by mild forms of violence such as stoning windows at retail branches and physically blocking the entrance to different banks’ main office buildings by force, by hiring thugs to man their picket lines, eventually an agreement was signed and some peace was restored. Still, throughout the year, flash demonstrations were held to protest against work conditions, insufficient pay, downsizing programs, outsourcing or the severance of specific employees “fired unfairly by their bosses”.

In those days we decided to handle these labor relations differently. I saw the situation as a love triangle between management, staff and the union.

The eternal triangle

In my mind, management needed to consider our staff as an estranged lover. “The other man” (or woman, as the case may be), the rival for the staff’s affection, was the union. In a love triangle, if you find that the one you love is being courted by a rival, there are two thing you can do (okay, there are many more, but the most frequent choice people make are between two options): (1) you fight your rival, verbally or physically, challenge him to a duel or just plain murder him (this is the plot for numerous stories since centuries ago); or (2) you try to win your lover over so that she choses you instead of your rival.

Fighting or destroying your rival makes for better drama, so that is the most frequent strategy in romance novels and also in folk stories. The classic situation is that your lover is torn between you and your rival; if you eliminate your rival, she will turn to you (or so goes your thinking). In many stories, however, when you strike your rival in rage, he becomes the victim of your anger and your lover turns to him instead of you. She consoles the victim and rejects the aggressor.

A much more effective strategy would be to focus or attention on winning her back by declaring your everlasting love and distracting her from your rival. Admittedly, this may be hard to do for some people who are possessed by righteous anger and would like nothing more than to destroy the rival to pieces.

In Brazilian labor relations the most common attitude of management is to fight the rival (the union), thinking this will necessarily ensure that the staff will remain loyal to the company, rather than join the picket lines and the protests. What often happens is that the more violent the fights against the union, the more staff join sides with their leaders and turn against the company.

A different approach

We decided to focus our attention on our staff instead of devoting our energy to fighting the union. We tried to make sure that our people were treated fairly, that they had benefits that were slightly better than most other banks, and that they had more learning and development opportunities than anywhere else. We encouraged participation at all levels, we trained and coached our managers to be better at leading their teams, we opened direct communication channels with staff so that they could complain about unfair treatment and so that we could take corrective action.

In a sense, we focused on our staff in a similar way to what we were doing with our clients: putting ourselves in their shoes, initiating dialogue, getting closer to them, trying to understand them so that we would be able to offer what they really need. In marketing terms, we also faced a love triangle between our clients, our competitors and us. Rather than looking at our competitors, we chose to get really close to our clients. We chose to focus on the client’s focus, to put ourselves in their shoes and get closer to them. In managing the triangle with the staff and the worker’s union, we chose a similar approach: focus on the staff and not on fighting the union.

We did not change the existing situation over night, but after two years of this approach, the results were palpable. Satisfaction on the job was at an all-time high, engagement was rising, our people did not join protests and picket lines organized by the union. In one memorable event, the union parked a truck in front of our main building at the heart of the financial district, and different union leaders made eloquent speeches decrying our management during the staff’s lunch break, when thousands left the building and returned an hour later. One of our staff members climbed on the truck and asked to have her turn with the microphone. When the union leaders handed her the mike, she gave an eloquent speech blasting the union and praising the bank!… She called the union a bunch of liars, told them they were not helping staff at all by trying to pick a fight with management, and said that this was the best management team she had ever worked with, people who treated staff with respect and provided care and attention unheard of in the industry.

That was the last time the union parked a sound-truck in front of the Banco Real building… From then on, the union focused their attention on other banks. When discussing issues with us, they were civilized and genuinely interested in working with management, rather than against management. Rather than confronting us, they complained in a humble tone, they asked for more attention from management to support their causes. They asked to be treated with the same respect, care and attention that we were dispensing to our staff in general. This lasted for four years, until I left ABN AMRO Real in São Paulo and moved to the Netherlands.

In love and politics

The political situation in Brazil (and also in some other parts of the world) is quite similar to this love triangle. The elite, the top 1% who earn the largest share of revenue, who have the higher levels of education and access to better health services, are in a triangle against their rivals, the radicals of the unions, the extreme left, the anti-capitalists, the jihadists who fight against Western dominance. The third party in this triangle are the silent majorities, the millions of people who just want to get on with their lives in peace and who would like security, education, jobs and healthcare.

If the elite continues to disregard the needs of the population and continues to focus their attention on fighting against labor leaders, waging war against ISIS and their equivalents, they will gradually feed the revolutions and make their own survival increasingly difficult. The elite need to shift their attention towards improving living conditions for everyone.

In Brazil, if more investment of time, energy and money were made in education, we would live in a much better society with less crime and violence. The more we focus on fighting crime and not on improving living conditions (through education and health), the more we feed the radical left and the more we ensure that a life of crime becomes a viable alternative for the uneducated and jobless millions we have.

The Brazilian elite blames PT (the Labor Party) for all of the country’s problems and directs its energy at fighting against them. To me they are focusing on the wrong corner of the triangle. They need to focus on the poor people living at the bottom of the Brazilian social pyramid. When poverty is eradicated, when millions become part of a real middle class, PT will no longer have the support they enjoy today. The Brazilian Labour Party (PT) feeds on social injustice; if the elite ends social injustice, PT will starve. All over the world, if the elite is able to end starvation, the radicals will be the ones to starve politically.

The problem we need to tackle is not communism, jihadists or radicals; the problem we need to tackle is poverty, which feeds radicalism. If the elite continues to think that poverty is something that only happens to people who are lazy, one day they will see those “lazy” people revolting and knocking on their door with machine guns… They will be driven there not by the radicals, but by hunger and need, by a desire for fairness and justice. If the elite is unable to organize society in a fair and just fashion, then it will need to retreat, to live in bunkers surrounded by military-grade security forces. But wait… That is already happening in many parts of the world!

The focus of the elite needs to change in this love triangle, towards the masses and away from the radicals.
Universal health care as a base-line is provided by the vast majority of nations; even the US is slowly realizing that this is morally right. Yes, it needs to be improved everywhere; put your energy in making it better, more efficient, less costly, rather than trying to deny it as a basic human need. The better the health care, the less room for radicals, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or ISIS in Iraq, to fill in the gaps left by the elite in promoting better living standards for all.

And changing towards promoting education for the masses is not so difficult: what you need to do is give your support to investments in better schools, better teachers, making schools more accessible for all, support on-line learning initiatives. There are literally millions of initiatives promoting education at all levels. Support politicians who will promote those initiatives and promote them yourself, directly, by volunteering to contribute with your time and energy.

A loving relationship needs to be nurtured; this is also true for relationships at work and for society in general. If you take love for granted, that is what causes rivals to appear and form a triangle. Focus on the one you love, rather than on your rival. Focus on your client, rather than on your competitor. Focus on improving life standards for the poor, rather than on fighting the revolutionaries. This is the way to making life better for all involved.