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Win-lose is for losers

Every day there is bleak news about the state of industrial relations in the UK - ballots, disputes, unresolved conflict and protracted talks with unions which employers don’t sound hopeful about.

There’s no doubt we are in a perfect storm. Rising prices and inflation, labour shortages, further feelings of unfairness as some organisations say they can’t afford pay rises but pay out bonuses and exacerbate pay gaps between leaders and employees. Economic indicators and forecasts are bleak. Sometimes, it feels like almost every industry has a potential dispute on its hands.

Some organisations are feeling the need to radically change as a result of the pandemic. It may be opportunistic in some cases but for others it is real. Its about survival in a changed world. They need to be more flexible, creative, agile to secure jobs for today’s and tomorrow’s workers. Sometimes this means redefining roles and assessing whether existing terms and conditions are still affordable or still reflect the changing nature of the roles.

These are big issues, fundamental to people’s futures and their lives. Our natural instinct is to fight, to persuade someone – a union rep or a business leader – that I am right and you are wrong. In industrial relations we take positions, we focus on winning and losing, voices get louder and threats are made, issues are escalated and procedures invoked. That can’t be the best way to manage change, to build modern workplaces where employees want to work and companies can create secure jobs.

Industrial relations feels stuck in the 1970s.

Why is there not a better model of industrial relations? It’s been left behind in the HR world of talent management and organisational development. Industrial relations is rooted in politics, philosophy and history but it is also, fundamentally about the effective management of change.

Around the country at the moment, companies and unions are spending time and money developing plans for disputes. That money and time could be well spent on developing a new style of industrial relations based on jointly solving todays workplace problems.

This week we deliver the fifth module of our ER and engagement development programme and the focus is on problem solving. We look forward to hearing from @chriswebber who advocates this approach and has helped me over the years to apply it to difficult IR challenges. This module comes after modules on the global and UK employee relations context and organisational strategy; behaviours and effective structures; conflict styles; collaboration and problem solving with a bit of continuous improvement thrown in. Problem solving requires different skills to negotiation. It requires patience, sharing the problem, really listening to each other’s perspectives and thinking of creative solutions that could work. It isn’t about power, process and being determined to win at all costs.

We are trying to build a new model of ER. We have to radically change the nature, style and approach or we are heading for more than a winter of discontent. There are too many fundamental problems in the world of work to leave it to a win-lose power battle.



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