The news that relationships between Royal Mail and its workers have broken down, to the extent that strike action has been threatened, is incredibly disappointing.
Since a programme of mediation was introduced five years ago, the company’s previously poor industrial relations track record has been overturned. In the first two years of using mediation, 88% of all industrial relations or bullying and harassment cases were resolved through this route, saving Royal Mail tens of millions of pounds. Employee relations lead Jane Fairhurst has spoken publicly about the more “collaborative and adult relationships” that have been built as a result of the partnership agreement ‘Agenda for Growth’, entered into by management and the unions.
But with 97% of workers voting in favour of a strike in the recent ballot and Royal Mail now taking legal action against the Communication Workers Union (CWU) over planned walkouts, something has clearly gone awry. As the negotiations about pay, pensions and working hours have progressed, it appears that trust has broken down and relationships have become seriously fractured.
In some respects, the disintegration of the situation is not surprising. Conflict is an inevitable part of working life, and something that all organisations will experience from time to time. CIPD research suggests that four out of ten employees in the UK are involved in some kind of inter-personal dispute with their peers, while the CBI estimates that unresolved conflict costs the UK as much as £33 billion per year.
The Royal Mail is operating in a sector which is vulnerable to disruption from competitors and the unrelenting march of digital technologies. Workers are naturally concerned about what this will mean for them on a personal level, while managers are faced with the pressing challenge of adapting to the realities of the future world of work.
This is all taking place against the backdrop of a volatile and divided UK – where views across business and politics are becoming increasingly polarised and people seem to have lost the ability to engage in healthy respectful dialogue.
The CWU's threatened strike action, however, is unlikely to help. Strikes, although necessary in some circumstances, are reductive and divisive. They force people into opposing camps and encourage them to adopt adversarial positions, where the focus in on ‘winning’ rather than ‘resolving’.
The truth is that in this scenario no-one wins. Tension, stress and anxiety rise, toxic atmospheres take hold and relationships are irretrievably damaged. For the parties involved in the conflict, it is painful, costly and time-consuming. A strike should always be the last resort, when all other attempts to resolve issues have been exhausted.
One of the results of the work The TCM Group did with Royal Mail a few years ago, was to help implement a company-wide mediation scheme which included a legally binding requirement for all parties to enter into mediation before a strike can be called.
Mediation is an incredibly effective tool, which research has shown is successful in almost 90% of cases. The process of sitting down round a table and engaging in open, honest conversation can achieve startling results, even in the face of the seemingly most intractable situations.
This is because in professionally facilitated mediation, the focus is on building trust, promoting dialogue over diatribe, and moving away from point scoring and towards win-win outcomes. It gives all parties the chance to step into each other’s shoes, so they can understand where each other’s concerns lie and what is driving them. Mediation paves the way to a resolution where people feel that at least some, if not all, of their needs have been met.
If companies are to succeed in an increasingly competitive and unpredictable environment, leaders need to build strong, mutually-beneficial relationships with their employees and union partners. Division and dogma sow the seeds of failure. Pluralism and collaborative working are the way forward.
David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group