Ending workplace Cold War

HR can work to regain cohesion, ‘same team’ mentality and trust in the wake of bitter negotiations
By David Dyck and Eric Stutzman
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/28/2012

While collective bargaining seldom results in a strike or lockout, workplaces often see an increase in tension and team division both during and after negotiations. In the worst cases, this divided mentality devolves to a workplace version of the Cold War.

So what can HR professionals do to help a company cope? Prior to bargaining, during bargaining or post-bargaining, HR’s overarching goal is the same: Influence all parties to regard one another as members of one team working on the same challenges for the benefit of all.

Understanding conflict escalation and change

Since different forms of assistance and intervention are appropriate to different levels of escalation, HR must learn to recognize the typical stages of conflict escalation to better prevent it and assist in recovery.

Tensions between labour and management develop in a predictable, four-stage pattern, according to John Paul Lederach, professor of international peace building at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana:

1. Shared problem-solving: Collective bargaining puts parties into conflict by its nature. However, when communication and trust between a union and employer are strong, they continue to see themselves as part of one team, working together on a shared problem. Negotiation focuses on the use of “we” language and attacking the problem, not each other.

2. They are the problem: When negotiations fail to move along easily, personal dislikes and a sense of opposing teams begin to surface. Parties often begin to use positional language, which focuses on differences, and lose sight of shared interests. There may also be issue proliferation and an increased tendency to talk “about” rather than “with” each other.

3. Antagonism: Each side begins to talk about and treat the other side as the problem. Personal dislike comes closer to hatred. The fundamental goal shifts from meeting needs and resolving issues to hurting one’s opponents.

Indicators the conflict has progressed to this stage may include indirect eye contact, rolling eyes and sarcasm, raised voices or the silent treatment after meetings or walking out of meetings.

4. Change in the social structure: If the parties fail to successfully resolve their conflict, it will inevitably lead to a change in the social structure that reflects the decreased connection and increased polarization. This includes lockouts, strikes, an inability to talk with each other post-bargaining and ongoing, high degrees of tension between the union and management or work units.

As the conflict escalates, trust and empathy dry up, communication deteriorates or is cut off, extreme voices rise to the top and increasingly come to dominate discussion, while both sides’ capacity and desire to solve the conflict constructively diminishes. At the same time, stress, anxiety and the chance of violence increase.

What can HR do?

In the post-bargaining phase, there are practical measures HR can take to promote “same team” thinking, particularly in situations where damage to relations has already occurred.

Flight attendants advise passengers to don their own oxygen masks before helping others if an emergency should occur. This is metaphorically helpful in the bargaining context. HR professionals must be self-aware as to their own thinking, behaviours and language, asking themselves:

• “Have I, myself, slipped into mental and verbal patterns of blame and negative generalization about ‘the other side?’”

• “Am I nursing feelings of personal antagonism against anyone in particular?”

• “Am I talking about others rather than with them?”

• “Does my language reflect an us-versus-them mentality?”

Personal work is often required before attempting to coach others. This may take the following forms:

• Consciously use “same team” or “we” language at all times.

• Begin talking with rather than about all members of the team.

• Seek out those previously regarded as “the enemy” to learn how your own actions, attitudes and missteps may have affected them. Consider apologizing.

When it comes to assisting both management and union members, ask: “Which relationships have become particularly strained? What might each party need and be able to offer to help re-establish a sense of ‘same team?’ Who am I best-positioned to assist, in this regard?”

To assess post-bargaining relations, a confidential survey may also be useful.

Offer individual debriefing

Providing one-to-one coaching is a natural role for HR. It’s often helpful to begin by identifying which people have the most potential to affect positive change and then focus coaching efforts on them.

As a coach, the following guiding questions may be helpful:

• “What decisions and actions of others were most troubling to you and why?”

• “What would you need to recover?”

• “What about the impact of some of the decisions and actions?”

• “What concrete offers can you make to work towards that?”

The HR coach may also encourage the parties to begin talking with rather than about one another. More inflamed relationships often need assistance with this through facilitated dialogue or mediation.

When an HR professional believes an unassisted conversation may create more tension, she may bring the parties together and take a more active role as facilitator.

Assuming individual coaching has already taken place, the HR facilitator now revisits and leads the members of both the management and union bargaining teams in discussing the questions listed above.


Given the complexity of HR’s association with management, it may be necessary to either collaborate with a union representative to co-facilitate such a meeting or seek the assistance of a conflict resolution specialist.

Even when an HR person and union representative are willing to lead such a meeting, caution should be exercised. If there is any doubt as to the skill level of either party, it is wise to enlist the specialized services of outside professionals since a botched facilitation can definitely make the situation worse.

While one’s initial, natural tendency may be to avoid the conflicts spawned by an acrimonious bargaining session in an effort to move on, what is required is the exact opposite — management and the union must move toward the tensions and seek to address them if a more permanent, war-like state is to be avoided.

HR staff must help bring this about, while at the same time knowing their limitations.

David Dyck and Eric Stutzman are both partners at Facilitated Solutions, mediators and conflict management specialists based in Winnipeg. They can be reached at (204) 774-5389 or for more information, visit www.fscanada.org.

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