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Using action learning sets to develop and embed brilliant employee relations skills

We’ve been using action learning sets as part of our ER and Engagement Development programme. When we were developing the programme and thinking about different learning styles, we wondered if we were over-complicating things. We developed six online modules of engaging, relevant and practical content. We planned two face to face sessions to meet mentors. Did we need action learning sets as well? Having now facilitated three sets and heard the feedback, they have proved an invaluable element in the learning and development of the delegates in the field of employee relations. In many ways, they have had more impact than I originally thought they would.

We have two sets of seven people who meet monthly for an hour. At the meeting, someone brings a challenge/problem and describes it to the group. The rest of the group listen and ask questions. The questions can be to get clarification, to understand implications and to explore alternative possibilities. The idea is to help the person to think about their issue in more detail or in a different way. We don't offer solutions or opinions. The presenter is being encouraged to find their own solution to their challenge. They reflect on what they have heard and set out a number of actions they are going to take. At the next meeting, we start by going back to this person for an update before we move on to a new challenge.

As you would expect, we have learnt a lot about the current employee relations challenges faced by organisations – from developing a new ER strategy for a start-up within an established company, to dealing with a sensitive change project in the middle of a pay dispute, to how to deal with growing awareness and resentment at pay differentials between unionised and non-unionised groups. There is no shortage of industrial relations challenges to discuss each month.

However, the real power of the action learning set is in the personal skills we are developing. It feels as if these skills are needed in workplaces today, more than ever before.

We all develop our listening and diagnostic skills. Our assumptions are challenged as we think about different ways of solving a problem. We all develop new ideas, new solutions and gain an invaluable insight into how we work in groups. The by-product of this is that this helps improve our understanding of how we develop work relationships.

It also reminds us that asking questions is an often under-rated skill as we often race to make our view known or state our position. It helps us to see what we might otherwise ignore. In employee relations, especially in difficult meetings, we try to persuade someone else to see our point of view. We pre-prepare our arguments. We wait for our chance to say our piece.

So often in the learning set, someone says “I hadn’t thought of it like that before”. The art of listening and asking questions, not interrupting, changes the mood and pace of the meeting. This is what we need in employee relations so that we all have time to think of new ways to solve today’s workplace challenges.

We plan to continue using action learning sets with every new cohort. I can think of so many times in my career when I would have valued the opportunity to present an ER problem to a group of peers and have them support me to find a solution, while also developing some invaluable personal skills.

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