Social Negotiations

Necessary and painful evil or laying the foundation for your future?

The present economic consequences of the severe health crisis are leading to many social negotiations between the social partners in organizations. Leadership and employee representatives should aim to get most out of these social negotiations in order to do what is best for their customers, their employees and their shareholders. 

Since decades this process is difficult and considered painful by both sides, a ‘necessary evil’.  Clever companies and employee representatives are getting much more out of this versus those that are stuck in the old rhetoric of us and them.   After two decades of multiple negotiations I have seen  organizations who come out of this stronger and those who are merely solving an immediate problem and very often end up in the same situation sooner than later.  

Abandoning the old roads of conflict in social negotiations
There is a best way of approaching negotiations and leaving decades of conflictual relationships behind us. More and more participants in such negotiations are courageous enough to abandon the old roads of conflict: putting each other under pressure, getting upset with each other and then eventually reaching an agreement because they have no other choice.  That is what I call the lose/lose scenario.  In such a set up employee representatives say they never get involved correctly and management sees the process as something painful and difficult delaying the necessary changes that need to take place.

Presently many negotiations about organizational changes and restructurings are on the drawing tables so it is timely to look into this.  Company and employee representatives who do this well have the capacity to look at the bigger picture.  They do not just focus on the issue at hand and try to understand why they are where they are and what needs to be done to get back on track building the longer term future for their customers, employees and shareholders.   They find out how to engage in a new social contract after the present negotiation, they look at work to be done as an investment into the future, even in case of layoffs or heavy restructuring.   The realize this is not just an administrative process to go through, on the contrary they know it is putting in place the foundation for their future.    

You don’t necessarily need to agree on everything
Effective negotiation processes are done with parties at the table who get each other involved, who get input from all around the table, who realize that those involved do not necessarily need to agree on everything, they just need to make sure they move forward together for the benefit of all stakeholders in the process.  Individuals who can put their ego’s aside and focus on the essence are key to success.  They inform each other correctly and communicate openly about their issues.   They also make sure they do not put the other side with the back against the wall and do not have white rabbits jumping out of hats. 

Surprising each other in such negotiation exercises is really not advisable.   Parties need to keep their cool and need to realize that getting out of this process together, not leaving the other one behind is the only way forward in the long term.    If one stakeholder gets it all and the other one does not get anything it is merely a matter of time before you are back at the negotiation table.

Employee representatives most often defend the status quo, no change and no big departure from how things are happening so far.  That is obviously not very realistic with the economic damage a lot of organizations are experiencing today.   Leaders very often put plans on the table they have worked for months at and do not realize that for employee representatives it is just undoable to understand and agree with them in some meetings.

It always takes two to tango
A well negotiated and balanced deal always gets the better long term consequences. Trying to understand each  other’s position and frame of reference is crucial.    At the negotiation table there is no place for people who are dogmatic, not able to listen and not able to depart from existing views on the situation.   

It always takes two to tango.   The most ideal profile for a social negotiator is just a decent human being who is able to listen, learn, share, respect differences of opinion and looking for a solution where all parties can find themselves in.  It is also a person who has a sense of urgency as most of the time the topics on the table require rather fast action.    Interestingly enough this is the description for both employee and management representatives at the table, there is no distinction between parties with regard to the personal characteristics they should have.

When preparing for such a negotiation, think about what you would do if you were in the shoes of the other party, it will help you get well prepared.   However difficult things get never lose your calm, stay focused and always keep the door open.  Decisions will come faster and agreements will be reached earlier working like this.    This is not about putting the other party as much as possible under pressure through getting the press involved for instance,  or to drop service to the customers of the business, tactics unions often use, this is also not about forcing predefined actions down the negotiation tube and explaining there is no other alternative. 

In my article ‘to people or not to people’  you can find some more input that can help you thrive in difficult social negotiations, whether you are a manager or union representative.   People are people and if you are able to people well you are ahead of the pack and serving those you represent best, whatever side of the table you are on.

To People or not to People

Looking back at a couple of decades of global and local Belgian human resources and business life I realize that there is a compelling need for a new verb to describe how to most effectively interact with each other, to team up, to move forward together, to negotiate with others and get a constructive outcome.   This verb could add so much to help us understand what is going wrong in case our discussion, our collective effort, our negotiation, our energy spent trying to get somewhere do not lead us to the desired outcome.  It would also develop more successful individuals, teams and organizations.  

Being extremely fascinated to get results through and for people in organizations it was time to reinvent this verb that describes it all, that is ‘to people’. So from now on if you think ‘this is not working out’, ‘we are not moving in the right direction’ ask yourself, ask your team : ‘Am I, are we able to people well’?

Skill, competency, natural talent, organizational capability.

To people is all of that.  It is the art to move forward together without necessarily agreeing with the party you are moving with, it is about creating a common goal and being courageous enough to be interdependent.  It is about motion and moving to avoid standstill or going backwards.  It is about understanding the frame of reference of who is sitting on the other side and not being afraid of trying.  

Today’s world is more dividing than uniting.

There is a large need to people better in today’s world.   I could give multiple examples globally, regionally and locally, at organization, department and team level where the individuals involved are not able to move forward, not able to make things happen or progress.  As my expertise is basically in a business setting I will focus on business examples although this phenomenon is visible in all parts of society and at all levels. 

Strategy and implementation

The classical example I have seen many times in my human resources career is the bright human resources professional developing great strategic plans, fantastic power points and, unfortunately, none of them are used by the business leader the person supports.  This is not exclusive to human resources, it also exists in other functions such as communications, marketing, or engineering developing a great product that sales can’t, or is not willing to sell, or production is not able to produce at the right cost.

Sometimes an individual, team or even entire function in an organization forget the reason why they exist.  Instead of meeting a specific business need with a concrete approach, intellectual rhetoric and 30000 feet high plans are developed, thoughts, ideas and actions that are never applied and end up at the cemetery of brilliant though unused ideas and all of this because they do not people well with their business.

Management and Social Partners

Another example frequently observed is the unproductive way management and social partners interact with each other.    Business leaders and union or works council representatives depart from the position that the other one has to be wrong or does not get it.  Not exactly a good point of departure and a waste of energy, resources and lots of frustration on both sides.    

When parties to the table start doing things to just fit their own agenda, they won’t be able to move, they will do the opposite and dig themselves in.    Short term solutions are found to unblock the immediate crisis and long term issues continue to exist.

These two examples illustrate that creating intellectual rhetoric without meaning is useless and expensive and dysfunctional social relations are a drain on company resources.  All of this because those involved do not people enough, they forgot how important it is to move forward together with respect of different opinions and styles.

How to move forward together without necessarily agreeing on everything.

The success criteria to respect to people well can be described as follows :

 1) Have a strong desire to make things happen.

2) Be courageous enough to put everything on the table and avoid ‘a prioris’.

3) Avoid being dogmatic and exclusive. 

4) Make a conscious effort to understand the frame of reference of the other party.     

5) Focus on the opportunity and not on what can go wrong or what is dangerous.    

6) Have a firm belief that information is not power.   What you do with the information is key.

7) Don’t think you need to like everything that is going on, just be willing to try, to experiment, to forget your anxiety for a moment and engage.

Managing egos.

If you want to people well you also need to understand the role of ego in the discussion.   There is nothing wrong having a strong ego as long as you can manage it and as long as it does not run away with you.    I have seen so many people in my career, more as they move up the ranks, who forget the basic reason why they exist in the organization.  They forget that the business and the customer ares at the center and start to operate in a vacuum.     Leaders or individuals who do succeed in managing their ego well understand what others really need.  By not controlling their ego leaders fail to respond to operational needs and miss the opportunity to make a difference.   They are not able to people correctly, they are not nourishing their organization, they  are just nourishing their ego and actually end up managing the consequences of ineffective decisions versus shaping the future.

Keeping in touch with all stakeholders including your social partners.

In these turbulent Covid days many companies will have significant economic challenges ahead and will need to adjust to the new reality. To people correctly when you need to restructure means:

  • Creating an environment where both sides commit to people well
  • Determining what is in the interest of all the stakeholders
  • Avoiding to inject non-negotiables
  • Not hiding behind laws or mediators
  • Not being shy of sharing information
  • Determining what you are interdependent on and which common goal you have

While entering negotiations one side often surprises the other one with financial data the other side does not buy in to.   To people well makes parties exchange their numbers ahead of the negotiation so that they are understood so when negotiation starts they know each other’s point of view and can start looking for  common ground to find solutions without spending hours just challenging the data. 

To people well.

This goes both ways.   If you really want to people well you will find the opportunity, if not you will create a drain on energy and deliberately decide to stand still or go backwards whether you like it or not, whether you realize it or not. 

To people or not to people, a basic art, skill, capability that some seem to have forgotten to practice although it is free of charge, gets fantastic results fast, builds value for your business and team members and once you get the hang of it the sky is the limit.