Crumbling transportation infrastructure has become a serious issue across the country. Nowhere is this problem more acute than the nation’s capitol, where the forty year-old Metro has been plagued by ineffective, bureaucratic leadership, and is now on the verge of collapse. New Metro Chairman Jack Evans aims to tackle those problems head-on, but he drew national attention for saying that parts of the system may have to be closed for up to six months. In order to overcome opposition and fix the Metro, Evans needed a powerful group of allies. His first steps to create one provide a compelling window into the power of transactional leadership in negotiating and building effective coalitions.
An Aging System
Once a source of pride, the Metro steadily fell into disrepair in recent decades, burdened by unstructured growth, deferred maintenance, and an unwieldy governance structure. Three separate counties contribute to supporting the system, which has the added peculiarity of receiving additional support directly from the Federal government and Congress because it is based in the capitol. Problems with the system reached a peak in 2009 when two trains collided, killing eight people, and the condition of the system has only worsened since.
As the manager of the entire system, Evans hoped to get operations back on board and support them with a revitalized infrastructure. Both goals required financial and political support from county and city leaders, federal officials, and congressional representatives. In the short term, however, they required painful choices that would directly affect millions of passengers. With the long-term gains far off, leaders were reluctant to support Evans. His attempt to negotiate the creation of a coalition to get his plan implemented bears all of the hallmarks of transactional leadership, which emphasizes organization, effective management, and collective effort to achieve better outcomes.
Make the Problem Real
At a March 2016 conference examining the Metro at 40 years, Evans took the bold step of calling out the problems with the system and put forward the difficult reality of what would be required to fix it. In his remarks, he acknowledged the missteps that had led to the Metro’s woes, the issues currently plaguing the system, and only one way forward. His plan required a huge injection of cash, an overhaul of the system’s day to day operations, and major investment in maintenance and repair.
Effective transactional leadership demands focusing on the issues that lie at the heart of a problem, and offering a credible way to address them. Striking a balance between ensuring that stakeholders understand the severity of a problem, while also making sure that they know it can be dealt with, is necessary for creating the momentum for getting a deal, and getting as many people on board in the process.
Rather than papering over the problem, Evans took the opportunity for honest assessment to ask for support in a targeted way, even if the proposal he put forward was uncomfortable for leaders and citizens to hear.
Seeing is Believing
Before convening the conference, Evans shut down the Metro for 24 hours. In mid-March, he ordered a complete review of the system on an emergency basis, and shuttered operations to do it. The system-wide inspection confirmed many of the concerns about the condition of the Metro, but this assessment also provided concrete information for the first time about where the problems are located, and what will be required to fix them.
While it may seem dire to close down the entire system, Evans demonstrated that it was possible to do so, and his subsequent remarks at the Metro conference showed stakeholders that he had very specific reasons for needing to do it. By making a publicly unpopular decision in order to advance a realistic proposal for solving a problem, Evans showed a kind of transactional leadership that lent significant credibility to his assessment. Most importantly, after years of poor relations between Metro leadership and their partners, the shutdown and subsequent remarks conveyed that he has the managerial wherewithal to work with stakeholders to make the even tougher decisions to come.
Get Everyone in the Same Room
Evans easily could have taken his findings from the mid-March shutdown and delivered them at a press conference. Instead he chose to unveil them at the 40th anniversary conference. While surprising a counterpart in a negotiation can come with serious pitfalls, Evans rightly assessed that one of the biggest complaints from the Metro’s partners in municipal and federal government was lack of consultation.
By convening everyone, he could fix the problem in one room, and supporting his statements with transparent findings, Evans avoided the appearance of pulling a stunt, even though the message he delivered was grave. He was able to focus the conversation on fixing the problem and ensure that supporters and opponents of his plan were able to immediately consult with one another in person.
Taking this approach prioritized transactional leadership by opening a difficult conversation in person in order to hash out differences with stakeholders whose support Evans would need. At the same time, having all of the parties in the room for his remarks diminished the number of potential opponents who might otherwise say they were not consulted or given all of the accurate information about the problem.
Set a High Number
Closing parts of a transit system for six months might sound outrageous, but Evans’ use of the number is an example of the powerful effect of what negotiation experts call anchoring. By setting expectations, he set the tone for the entire discussion of how to fix the Metro. Anchoring a negotiation around a number that is attention-grabbing without being unrealistic can further enhance the credibility of a negotiator while signaling to the other side that getting a deal is meaningful and important.
Get On With the Future
To some extent, all of the agencies and leaders responsible for maintaining the system bear responsibility for its current condition, and the Metro management likely leads the pack, but for Evans to succeed, they will need to repair relationships for years to come. While Evans has acknowledged past problems, his public statements have focused on ensuring that the Metro is revived for the years to come.
Emphasizing the steps that can be taken ensure the future success of an effort is a hallmark of effective transactional leadership. Instead of dwelling on the mistakes of the past, Evans has set the tone for negotiation by looking to the future. While he has many steps to go to form the coalition he needs, his efforts have already shown how transactional leadership can jumpstart a stalled process and advance a negotiation to get a better outcome in a challenging situation.