How to move from a culture of conflict to a culture of collaboration in organisations

Many factors contribute to SA’s current state of workplace relations, some of which are difficult, if not impossible, to control. Nevertheless, there are several factors that, with the right attitude and will, can definitely be controlled. Barney Jordaan, who will be presenting at the Industrial Relations Conference on the 21st and 22nd May 2013, Johannesburg, offers insight into the state of IR in South Africa.

The current state of workplace relations in South Africa

To most observers, the state of workplace relations in South Africa is generally perilous. The CCMA, reputedly one of the busiest agencies (if not the busiest) of its type anywhere, reportedly deals with over 100 000 disputes per year – and this excludes thousands of disputes being dealt with by bargaining councils in the private and public sectors. On the industrial action front, there has been a reduction in strike action and workdays lost, yet violence continues to affect many workplace disputes.

Furthermore, experience with many organisations in both the public and private sectors suggests that levels of trust in most of them are low, with predictable consequential results such as high levels of inter-personal and other conflict, low productivity, absenteeism, low morale and high staff turnover. Often, this is the result of “traumatic” events in the organisation, mostly related to restructuring, mergers and acquisitions. Yet in many cases, these events tend merely to worsen already poor workplace relations.

Contributing factors

1. Developing coherent government labour policies in collaboration with social partners

Government is a key role player in the creation of an environment, political and otherwise, in which the aims of our advanced and sophisticated labour laws can be achieved. These include the promotion of economic growth, skills development, equity, employment justice and greater collaboration between capital and labour in the work environment. Unless and until we are able to appreciate and establish a real social compact between the social partners around the challenges facing the world of work, we are doomed to the bottom rungs of the economic development ladder.

2. Acceptance of global market and economic realities

Empty slogans and rhetoric may convince and move a gullible union membership, but until unions wake up to the realities of the global market and economic realities of our time and replace rhetoric and platitudes with intellectual vigour and rational debate, it will be very difficult to find the kind of common ground needed for developing collaborative and consensus-based responses to those challenges. Clinging to an outdated model of capital exploitation of labour perpetuates a victim mentality; it becomes a convenient excuse for not taking responsibility for one’s own destiny and merely serves to embed the culture of entitlement that is so prevalent. Those who see themselves as victims also tend to become aggressors later.

3. Union capacity and competence

It is a sad state of affairs if the president of one of our largest trade unions, the NUM, must be accompanied by bodyguards at the union’s national conference. Personal experience suggests that the malaise runs deep in many once-proud trade unions with political in-fighting, corruption, incompetence and lack of resources being the order of the day.

4. Outdated corporate leadership models

An emphasis on leadership skills that deliver profits continues to guide executive thinking and management behaviour. Instead of inclusive leadership styles that would allow decision-makers the chance to hear others’ concerns, viewpoints and suggestions before making a decision that affects them, many of our captains of industry continue clinging to an outdated idea of “decisive” (meaning exclusionary power-based) leadership.

The focus is on profits and the interests of shareholders (and executives), rather than on stakeholders in general, including workers, the environment and society at large. In their book Firms of Endearment, Sisodia and others provide ample proof of the fact that the former is an outdated and in any event less effective approach to leadership; that the more inclusive style of leadership is not only more effective and beneficial to shareholders, too, but is necessary in the modern era which is experiencing a “historic social transformation” of capital.

5. Adversarial relations in spite of new LRA model

It is both sad and ironic that after 16 years of the LRA’s “New Deal” for labour relations, adversarialism is the dominant feature of labour-management relations in both private and public sector organisations.

Often, as an advisor to large and multi-national organisations, I am surprised at the lack of progress made. In fact, in some instances I have been left with a distinct impression of deterioration rather than progress. The factors mentioned earlier certainly play a role in this, but there is no denying that at the workplace level, a general lack of trust and of conflict resolution/problem-solving skills are major contributors.

6. Absence of trust

There is an old saying that “trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback”: It takes time to develop and hard work to maintain it. Perhaps because of the extent of regulation of the employment relationship in this country, high levels of “formalism” exist: Management by relationship is superseded by management by the rules. The result is that workers and their representatives tend to become very “rights”-orientated, thereby further entrenching the current rights-based and process-orientated workplace culture, while managers tend to become reactive.

Action – and sometimes communication – happens only when, for example, a rule is broken or a redundancy looms. Consultation and involvement, which have been shown to lie at the heart of improved performance and workplace harmony, tend to happen only in “have to” situations, such as when we have to listen to the employee before taking action against him or her.

Not surprisingly, trust is replaced by a culture of compliance among employers for the sake of avoiding risk, rather than compliance based on a commitment to labour market policy or the principles of good HR/ER practice. Of course, trust is a two-way street. In unionised environments, especially, unions carry a big responsibility towards their members to win for them the best terms and conditions possible.

However, conduct that destroys trust does not assist in this task. Instead, consistent and credible behaviour; transparent and effective communication; improved levels of competence and the ability to consider the interests of both workers and the organisation (leadership qualities, really) are essential for higher levels of workplace co-operation and trust to develop.

7. Poor conflict management and resolution skills

It has been said that while conflict is inevitable in human affairs, combat is optional. Yet, we seem to choose the latter as first option when confronted with conflicts and disputes, instead of seeking a mature and sincere dialogue to resolve differences. Lack of conflict resolution skills in workplaces is not unique to SA, however. For example, a 2009 UK survey of over 600 senior UK business people revealed that only 37% regarded themselves as being adequately trained to cope with business conflict. Just how prevalent conflict is demonstrated by another UK survey in 2008 which found that the average UK employee spends over two hours a week dealing with conflict, resulting in more than 370 million lost working days in the UK the previous year alone!

A big contributor is our general view that conflict is bad and should be avoided. It is no wonder that when we are faced with conflict, we either fail to deal with the issue, or we go into attack mode, using whatever power or legal remedies are available. This makes sense when we consider the general unwillingness to listen to those who have different views to our own and the way in which “service delivery protests” develop. Instead of proactively seeking joint solutions, the police are called in or recourse is taken to the courts to stop the protests. This provides only short-term relief, however. If and when the people concerned are finally listened to, relationships are already at a low ebb, making the search for constructive and co-operative solutions difficult and sometimes even impossible.

One challenge, therefore, is to begin to see conflict not only as inevitable, but also as a potential opportunity to resolve differences, find common ground, and strengthen relationships. Within organisations, this translates into becoming “conflict wise”, harnessing the power of conflict to promote understanding, co-operation and growth. In Jim Collins’s best-selling book Good to Great, he recalls how the 11 “great” organisations (they had each delivered cumulative returns at least three times greater than the market over a 15-year period!) all displayed a similar approach to dealing with conflict: “All the good-to-great companies had a penchant for intense dialogue. Phrases like ‘loud debate’, ‘heated discussions’ and ‘healthy conflict’ peppered the articles and interview transcripts from all the companies.”

We have to be willing to listen and not just hear; to move away from apathy to action; to stop being victims and instead become masters of our own destiny; and, most of all, become masters over the attitudes that we bring into those difficult conversations.

Moving forward in South Africa

So how can South Africans move from a culture of conflict to a culture of collaboration in organisations? Several things need to happen. Organisations need to:

1. Train in problem-solving and conflict resolution techniques
2. Implement a policy of “hearing the other side”
3. Develop effective systems for problem-solving and conflict resolution.
4. Introduce values-based decision-making, not merely compliance and risk limitation.

Join me on the 21st and 22nd May 2013 in Johannesburg at the Industrial Relations Conference where I will examine these solutions more closely. Click here to learn more about this event.

As a final thought, one of the early pioneers of conflict resolution, Mary Parker Follett, once said: “It is possible to conceive conflict as not necessarily a wasteful outbreak of incompatibilities, but a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all concerned.”

Prof Barney Jordaan is a founder and director of Maserumule Consulting Learning & Organisational Growth, which is attached to the Business Schools of Stellenbosch and Cape Town Universities.


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