With few signs of progress in the cross-party negotiations on Brexit, Labour and Conservative party figures have begun to accuse one another of approaching the negotiations in bad faith. But can negotiations ever really be based on good faith?  There are various definitions and assumptions relating to the practice of negotiation.  To use one randomly, “negotiation is a method by which people settle differences. It is a process by which compromise or agreement is reached while avoiding argument and dispute. In any disagreement, individuals understandably aim to achieve the best possible outcome for their position (or perhaps an organisation they represent). However, the principles of fairness, seeking mutual benefit and maintaining a relationship are the keys to a successful outcome.”

As a whole, the statement makes sense but if we examine the some of the sentences in isolation, it is more difficult to picture what a negotiation looks like in reality as opposed to the aspiration. Do, for example, practitioners regard negotiation as a method by which people settle differences? In many joint workshops I have facilitated, managers and trade union representatives will happily agree at the outset of the discussions that this is how they both see it. It rarely takes long for each party to state that, in reality, they believe that their management or trade union counterparts are trying to win the argument rather settle any differences. Far from being a process by which argument and dispute is avoided, the lack of a shared understanding and trust of the other party can sometimes result in an unnecessary escalation of tension over issues where perspective and a sense of proportion has been lost.

The reason perspective and proportion can easily get lost is because practitioners will focus on “the best possible outcome for their position” A group of representatives recently embarked on a campaign to increase pay based on feedback that “a significant” number of staff were dissatisfied with pay and were “leaving in droves”. This position was clearly based on the representatives concentrating solely on the disengaged leading them to present a very inaccurate picture of both dissatisfaction levels and staff turnover. It was relatively simple for the organisation to counter this with factual information that highlighted a strong engagement score based on a recent staff survey plus statistics that staff turnover was below average and manageable. The hangover from that negotiation was a breakdown of trust that influenced subsequent discussions which were clouded by both parties feeling that the other was “trying to get one over on them”.

This example is not uncommon. Many senior managers wonder why their representatives are, in the words of one “always assuming we are trying to shaft the employees”. The representatives will often reply by asking why the managers “only pay us lip service and share as little information as possible” And so the vicious circle continues. Only when both parties share their core objectives, dilemmas and challenges can negotiation begin and continue on the basis of good faith. To establish this as the basis of any negotiation will require either one party to blink first or agree that they should blink together.

Negotiations can achieve fairness, mutual benefits and more honest relationships – but, more importantly, they can inform employees and create a true sense of perspective around the critical issues that will, eventually, shape whether an organisation flourishes or regresses. To achieve this, each party has to “open the books” by sharing key information at outset. Where pay is concerned, for example, that transparency works both ways – the organisation needs to share its market data and affordability projections; the unions need to present an accurate temperature check and a truthful analysis of what people are expecting.

If a trade union asks for a certain percentage increase, managers should present a cost impact analysis of paying that claim in full with the consequences of doing so being made perfectly clear. That won’t always stop disagreement but it will give people a fact-based choice of whether to accept the market rate or push for more regardless of the risks that have been communicated honestly to them. In the current climate of uncertainty, managers and representatives need to be more honest with each other than they ever have before. If they can take that step, both parties can enter into progressive discussions based on problem-solving to keep organisations competitive.

The vast majority of staff will understand that neither managers nor trade unions have a magic wand to deliver everybody’s wishes. It is time to use that realism as the basis for good faith negotiation based on mutual interests rather than on mutual suspicions.            


Derek Luckhurst is Training and Development Director at the IPA

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