“Picket lines, protest marches, cancelled trains, delayed post…. As the list of workers either on strike or threatening to go on strike grows by the day, you would be forgiven for thinking we had travelled in time back to the 1970s.
The chances of a general strike happening early next year are looking increasingly likely. A combination of inflationary pressures, the cost-of-living crisis, the fall-out from Brexit and the recent economic crises and associated turbulence have created a ticking time bomb.
But it’s not just external factors that are leading to this widespread breakdown in employer-employee relations. With so much going on, companies could be forgiven for having taken their eye off the ball. Many have been taking good industrial relations for granted and have failed to renew – or even put in place – the partnership agreements that are designed to act as a guide for the way disputes get resolved.
In the absence of these agreements, communication breaks down, and problems that could be sorted out through dialogue and collaboration are allowed to escalate. Situations become toxic, positions become entrenched, and before too long, unions call a strike because they feel there is no other way out.
It is precisely at this point, where it feels as if all the options have been exhausted, that the parties involved need to redouble their efforts to find a solution.
Individuals and unions do, of course, have an absolute right to withdraw labour if they feel they are being treated unjustly. But what we need to recognize is that strikes in themselves don’t resolve disputes – they only serve to highlight deep-rooted issues which should have been dealt with long before it got to that stage.
Dig beneath the surface of any industrial relations dispute, and you will generally find cultural, structural and systemic problems in the organisation – many of which stem from a complete inability to address any kind of conflict effectively.
Ultimately, the only way any dispute is resolved is for the parties to get round the table, engage in constructive dialogue and compromise until they can find consensus and identify a way forward. This is not a comfortable or easy process, particularly when a situation has become highly adversarial and parties are attempting to work together under the glare of the media spotlight.
This is where seeking the help of independent, third party mediators can help. These objective and neutral facilitators can often help both sides step away from the brink and emerge with their pride (and the organisation) intact.
They can help the warring factions see that they do have a choice. They can choose to walk away from rhetoric and brinkmanship and engage positively with each other. They can seek to fully understand each other’s position, address the underlying needs and fears that are at the root of the dispute and find a bridge that will lead them to a solution.
It's never too late to embrace this approach and resolve issues through dialogue – because dialogue is the only way a conflict will ever be truly resolved.
I believe that the industrial relations impasse we are seeing right now is, in fact, a reflection of the way organisations tend to deal with any form of workplace conflict, whether unions are involved or not.
When managers and direct reports cross swords, or when colleagues fall out, instead of sitting down and solving issues through adult, face-to-face dialogue, organisations fall back onto damaging and divisive formal policies.
They drag people through lengthy disciplinary and grievance procedures, which swallow up time and resources and cause untold amounts of stress to everyone involved. They haul people through punitive performance management processes, which are focused on blame and punishment, instead of trying to find out what’s at the root of the problem and supporting people to sort it out.
We are applying this same right-wrong, win-lose mindset to our industrial relations. People can’t find a way of extracting themselves from the situation without losing face. Relationships are irretrievably damaged, workers (and the public) suffer, and ultimately, no-one really wins.
If we are to have any chance of stopping the current industrial unrest in its tracks, organisations need to take a step back and think hard about the culture and climate they are creating for their workforce. They need to shift to a people-focused, values-led approach, which puts compassion, collaboration and above all constructive dialogue front and centre.
It’s time to make conflict management – of all types – a key strategic priority. Only when organisations recognize this will they be able to build the happy, healthy, harmonious workplaces they need to succeed in the challenging times ahead.
David Liddle is the CEO of culture change consultancy TCM Group and president of The Institute of Organisational Dynamics. He previously ran the Royal Mail’s industrial relations unit.
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