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Identifying & addressing the causes of conflict is necessary to enable new ways of working to emerge

Conflict and breakdowns in relationships between union representatives and employers are a common occurrence. They are also financially and emotionally costly. Leaving conflict to resolve itself, hoping it will blow over without some sort of intervention is wishful thinking and unlikely to lead to more constructive relationships. At Make Work Better, we have worked with organisations and unions to improve the industrial relations climate if breakdowns seem likely or have already occurred. Each organisation is different so we take time to listen to both parties’ perspectives of the current situation and the factors that have led to where they are today.

We have undertaken specific work for leadership teams and senior union representatives who both recognised that their ways of working and meeting behaviours were deteriorating and agreement was difficult. In another organisation, local managers and local representatives took part in structured joint sessions to build trust, help them change their behaviours and solve problems together. We have taken an organisational-wide view and designed top to bottom change with employers and unions who came close to a dispute – a result of longer term neglect of employment relations. Also, we have designed a large scale joint change programme after a major strike. In this case, both parties knew that the causes of the conflict had to be addressed and transformational change was needed after the damage, disruption and hurt caused by the dispute.

In every example, the benefits of identifying and addressing the causes of conflict, then making a tangible plan to rebuild are clear - more agreements made, problems solved, pay negotiations completed on time, better meetings. This leads to reduction of risk, less conflict and more time to focus on making work better. In one case, the stability which a solid employment relations climate provided, was a deciding factor in keeping work in-house and enabled the development of an apprenticeship scheme.

Here are four examples of the types of intervention we have taken to help organisations address and understand conflict, before moving forward to build better relationships.

1. Moving from disagreement to constructive debate

The leadership team and union representatives in an organisation requested our help as their relationship was increasingly tense, they were less able to hold constructive meetings, make agreements or move forward on organisational change. They needed to “clear the air” and make some agreed changes to ways of working before the relationship deteriorated further. After one-to-one interviews, we held a one-day structured session where the two parties had an opportunity to tell each other about what employment relations felt like from their perspective. Using uninterrupted speaking time, we then we moved on to action planning focusing on tangible practical changes focusing on areas of common ground.

2. Joint sessions for local teams to build better working relationships

This work entailed a series of structured sessions for local managers and local union representatives to improve their local forums. Work before the session helped shape the joint meeting which asked both parties to describe themselves and the other party. We then moved into defining the behaviours they would like the others to demonstrate more of and less off. After listening to this feedback, both parties committed to five things they would do more of and less of.

3. Rebuilding after difficult pay negotiations

The organisation and its unions came very close to a dispute over pay. The new HRD wanted to understand what had led to this outcome and wanted a plan for improvement in the ER climate. Interviews showed that the parties had lost faith in their ability to work together for the benefit of employees and the organisation. A three-year programme began with the following key elements: team “mediation” sessions for key leaders and TU reps; a new ER framework signed off; the development of a forward plan including building ER capability and a joint review and implementation of new structures for employee voice.

4. Large scale employment relations change programme after a strike

A high profile strike led both parties to agree that the relationship needed to be re-set across the organisation. The key steps were a diagnosis, the design of a joint change programme, joint governance to manage the change, problem solving groups generating joint ideas, large scale training programme, further problem solving groups, consolidation and embedding of new ways of working.



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