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Talk to each other to build bridges before its too late

When relationships get difficult with your unions, what can you do to stop issues escalating into a dispute? What can you do to stop change stalling as neither party trusts the other in any meetings or discussions?

You can choose to ignore it and hope it goes away. But it won’t. You can fight it out and watch issues escalate. Or, you can take a proactive decision to try to work out what’s going on and put it right.

While all situations vary, here is a general approach I have used with organisations and unions in a diverse range of sectors such as aviation, engineering, universities and in refuse collection.

Similar to mediation, it’s important to meet the parties separately to understand the current situation. The meetings will focus on issues such as:

  • How would you describe the IR climate today? Has it changed over time? Why has it changed?

  • Describe the interactions you have with senior leaders/senior union reps (focusing on behaviours).

  • Can I have some examples of the types of issues you discuss (level of debate, what gets talked about and what doesn’t)?

  • Does the capability of all the parties help/hinder good IR?

  • How do local managers and local reps work together?

  • What is good about how you work together today? (we can overlook what actually does work well)

  • What needs to improve (think about joint communication/meeting behaviours/frequency of meetings/what you discuss)?

  • What happens when you don’t/can’t agree? (how do issues get escalated, when and to who?)

  • Do you regularly assess the ER climate/review how things are going?

We are trying to get a feeling of what the dialogue is like when the parties come together, how meetings are run, how agendas are set, how discussions are handled and what escalation looks like. We would also discuss what works well as there may be positives on which to build. Finally, we would discuss the priority areas for improvement.

Next we would prepare a joint session to play back what we have heard but this will only take place if both parties have a commitment to change and its important to establish this up front . The joint session would be very structured whilst also allowing a contribution from everyone taking part. I would normally take the following type of approach:

  • Identify the common goals of both parties;

  • Ask both parties to describe the current situation as they see it while the other party listens;

  • Ask both parties to describe themselves and the other party. In effect, holding up a mirror to themselves. This can be tricky but very revealing as we compare perceptions;

  • A discussion around these perspectives;

  • A discussion and commitment around specific areas for change that will have the most impact;

  • Build an action plan with joint owners.

These sessions need to be strongly facilitated by someone independent who the parties can trust, so that they don’t become personal but focus on improvement. Each session is bespoke, dependent on the circumstances facing the parties.

It is unlikely we will resolve everything in one session but it will help in moving the parties into a different way of working on issues.

“As much as a five year span may be needed before the root system that produced the original animosities can be replaced by a new and healthier root system – one that can cause the relationship to flourish” Blake, Shepherd and Mouton, “Managing intergroup conflict in industry” (1964)

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