MOR Associates Turns 40

By: Brian McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, Founder of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at or via LinkedIn.]
It was cold day in Watertown, Massachusetts on February 1, 1983 when MOR Associates put up an open for business sign.  The quest was to help organizations develop the strategies and skills needed to maximize their organizations resources.  One focus was on enhancing how work was designed to catalyze the potential employees had to contribute to the success of the enterprise.  It was more common for employees to feel stifled than for them to be invited to share their ideas.
Here it is February 2023 and MOR has been reinvented three times over these four decades.
During our first decade from 1983 to 1992 MOR Associates worked with several organizations to turn adversarial union-management relationships into cooperative partnerships. The foundation for this was helping both parties recognize they have far more shared interests than they did competing interests. The proposition was that by being at odds with one another, the only people they were helping were their competitors.

Within a week of launching MOR I was on a plane headed to Chicago to facilitate the first meeting between the Labor Management Steering Committee for the Chicago United States Postal Service and the Chicago Branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. The Chicago Post Office was a mammoth operation with over 5,400 employees just under the roof of the Main Station and thousands of letter carriers delivering on the streets. This was a high stakes “pilot” to see if what MOR had to offer could change long standing characterizations of the other party as the foe.
Starting out that first morning, the managers were on one side of the table with the union leaders staring back at them across this huge wooden table. The air was tense.  You could sense the apprehension.
It took less than 30 minutes to change the dynamic. Rather than going around the table and having each person introduce themselves, a manager was paired up with a union leader for fifteen minutes and they were to introduce one another to the group.  This was the first time they got to know “the person” rather than responding to the prescribed role of manager or labor leader. The manager introduced the union leader and then the union leader did the intro for the manager. It was remarkable how this shifted the dynamic in the room.

Lesson number one, a cornerstone for MOR since the firm’s inception:
1. Relationships matter.
Building connections is critical to knowing and trusting other people. This served as the basis for numerous cooperative joint efforts.
This was an early confirmation of how relationships can make a difference. When the manager or union leader realized they no longer had to play their role, and then discovered both their kids play soccer, it started breaking down the lines demarking the two sides. As the day progressed, I still remember Jimmy Jackson, the NALC Local President, saying “what you are doing is just common sense yet that has been what’s missing for too long.” This was the opening needed to turn the page on the historical animosity to create a different shared view of the desired future state.
Then onto the Philadelphia Post Office and then to a hundred or more other cities over the next few years as the sponsors started the second phase designed to change the relationship between managers and letter carriers at the local level. Employee involvement (EI) teams we initiated across thousands of Post Offices with city delivery.
EI facilitators were trained, and they supported this experiment in letting people closest to the work help solve the day-to-day problems as well as suggest ways to improve customer service, and more. This was a revolutionary undertaking for the United States Postal Service given the top-down hierarchal organization that had a similar approach to policy making. Standards and uniformity were a fundamental operational tenet. Letting employees participate in decision making was a radical notion contrary to the highly engineered work designs imposed on every unit.
The campaign to help change the United States Postal Service and the relationship with the NALC and other unions was an epic undertaking that spanned over ten years. There was progress, lots of employee engagement, lots of supervisors who saw a different way to relate to workers, lots of backsliding, and places that just couldn’t give up the old ways.

By 1985 a couple Regional Postmaster Generals (the country was divided in 5 geographical areas) realized this investment needed to be supported by a parallel effort to develop more participative managers. The recognition that managers needed to learn how to move away from the more dominant autocratic approach to genuinely value employee input was another breakthrough. The request to design a workshop for Division Managers across the Regions followed. MOR rolled out a three-day Participative Management Program from Baton Rouge to Birmingham to Boston to Long Beach to New Orleans to New York City to Providence to Portland to West Palm, and numerous cities in between. Over the next two years over 1,500 senior managers went through this workshop whether they wanted to do so or not.
Lessons number two, three and four followed from this vast experiment.
2. A three-day workshop does not result in sustainable behavior change.
3. A three-day workshop does not change a deeply embedded autocratic culture that made top-down management a science.
4. Any workshop where people are mandated to attend is far less likely to influence behavior than when participants want to be there.

These lessons along with others have played an instrumental role in MOR’s strategic direction and eventual focus on developing leaders.
During the first decade MOR Associates also worked with Ford Motor Company, FMC Corporation, the United Auto Workers, New York State, and several of their unions. In each of these engagements MOR was asked to help evolve the labor management relationships as well as to design employee involvement processes along with building the skills for working effectively in teams.
During even these early years when MOR was a relatively young and emerging consulting firm there was an outsized reach as we had the opportunity to influence thousands of people from the work floor to the boardroom.

1983 to 1992 

  • 650 Members of Labor Management Committees Attended Workshops
  • 1,200 Facilitators Trained for Employee Involvement Programs
  • 3,700 Attended Participative Management Workshops

1993 to 2002

  • 30,000 participated in Skills for Working Effectively in Teams (MOR led and expanded by Train the Trainer)
  • 2,750 people were schooled in the practices for Self Directed Work Teams
  • 2,400 participated in the workshop entitled The Manager As Coach
  • 1,800 took part in reengineering and total quality management programs

Over these decades the appreciation for how employees can contribute to the workplace and the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect has become far more mainstream than back in 1983 when these two tenets were considered radical ideas.  There were more lessons learned as we reinvented MOR’s focus in the ensuing years as we needed to adapt to the changing context. We’ll share more of the story in Tuesday Readings this month.

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