In Praise of Much-Maligned Meetings

04/07/2016 07:50
BEN STANSALL via Getty Images

The news is dominated at the moment by factions: in football, politics and, following the vote on Europe, within some communities and families.

One important lesson I learnt as a trade unionist, negotiating on behalf of my members, and, currently, seeking resolutions between opposing parties at work, is to avoid stereotyping. It's so tempting at the moment to think 'everyone over there is like that' or 'everyone who voted for that believes this'.

We need to take the time to understand more about the deeper views and experiences of those in opposition to one another, and these can rarely be summed up in a single sentence or headline.

Years ago, large collective disputes between unions and employers were wrestled into some form of agreement during late night sessions over 'beer and sandwiches'. While the stereotypical smoked filled rooms may be a thing of the past, perhaps reassuringly, some things haven't changed. Negotiations still take place in muted office rooms. And it still takes time to get people to listen to each other's point of view and to realise that the positions we take up ('what' we want) can become divorced from our underlying interests ('why' we want).

Of course there are changes to the way we live and these bring new challenges into the negotiation room. These days, there is often pressure for discussions to be held without sufficient 'pause for thought'. Social media and the constant messaging and news feeds are great for updating people, getting people involved and for mobilising opinion BUT sometimes you need a bit of time to give the glue time to stick.

Meetings are not everyone's idea of a great time, but they are a necessary way of ironing out the small print. Everyone likes a headline but in the days and weeks that follow the momentous change, it is the small details that become more telling.

Acas advisers work with employers of every size and in every sector to help manage change. They understand that emotional intelligence is particularly good at picking up on the small details when it comes to personal interactions. As our recent paper shows, it can help with the timing and appropriateness of interventions at any stage: making sure that managers calibrate the language they use accurately in individual conflict, for example, and, in collective disputes, ensuring advisors bring parties together at the right time and in the right manner.

For many people, everywhere we look right now there seems to be a 'resolution gap'. This is certainly endorsed by the latest research and thinking on conflict management. Conflict is often not being resolved at all, or as effectively as it might be due to: 1) a lack of line manager confidence in handling difficult conversations with staff, 2) an erosion of the social and representative networks that formerly acted as conduits for informal chats and sounding boards between management and staff, and 3) the overriding view amongst many organisations that, although conflict is inevitable, there is nothing much we can do about it.

We need to respond to these challenges by up-skilling managers, recognising the valuable role that representatives play in promoting effective communication and consultation and by taking a more strategic approach to how we apportion responsibility for managing conflict.

But before we do anything, when are you free to talk?

Sir Brendan Barber is the chair of Acas and a former general secretary of the Trades Union Congress