I thought I'd heard everything. But in the middle of an industrial facilitation, progress ground to a halt because the management team refused to continue until the union had agreed to stop pointing wooden AK47s at supervisors on the shop floor.
This was 1989 South Africa and I was one of five facilitators in a Relationship by Objectives (RBO) process between Mercedes Benz and the National Union of Metal Workers (NUMSA). What happened next showed to me the importance of having external, turbocharged facilitators. I still reflect on this experience nearly 30 years later.
The RBO process is a product of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in the United States. We have probably used it more in South Africa than it has been used anywhere else. It is a facilitated process suitable for fractured union-management relationships. The Mercedes Benz/NUMSA relationship was like many other union management relationships around the world, split by mistrust and a host of other typical stressors following industrial action.
The way that the RBO works is that skilled facilitators guide the parties through a process over hours or a few days, in which they review the current relationship and then set objectives and agree action plans to restore it.
In particular, the parties are asked to consider two questions:
- What must the other party do to develop and maintain a constructive relationship with us?
- What can I do to develop and maintain a constructive relationship with the other party?
Inevitably, the list in answer to the first question is longer than the second. It is much easier to blame than it is to consider what contribution we each make to damaged relationships, let alone what we are prepared to actually do to remedy things. I have often used these same questions when mediating workplace disputes, where blame is a common theme.
Processes such as the RBO and other relationship building initiatives are, in my experience, best facilitated by experienced mediators. Mediators are trained to work impartially and to manage processes in a strategic manner. They are able to get the best results in difficult situations.
The facilitators in the Mercedes Benz/NUMSA RBO were all experienced mediators, nevertheless when management's condition regarding the wooden weapons was put to the plenary of 80 people, they were divided about how to deal with the situation. They called a break to the facilitation to caucus amongst themselves.
Should they deal with this boulder in the road now or should they try to persuade management to put the issue into process along with the many other issues under discussion? Sequencing issues, such as this, are a typical challenge in negotiation and other consensus-building processes. The facilitators in the RBO finally decided to propose to the parties that a small joint union-management task team be established to work on the weapons issue while the plenary continued working on other issues.
This was accepted by the parties and it worked. The outcome agreed in the small joint union-management task team was that all weapons including wooden and real ones carried by white workers were to be left at security. The facilitation continued and the RBO was a success.
The power of 'TurboCharge' - mediators, negotiators and facilitators
This is where my 'turbocharged' reference comes in. It is a term coined by Tom Colossi of the American Arbitration Association back in about 1990. He said mediation is like a turbocharged negotiation, in that the mediator is the turbo charge to a stalled negotiation. Mediators are expected to add value to a negotiation by injecting energy and optimism into a flagging process. They may act as negotiation coaches to parties who are less skilled at negotiation or stuck in outmoded adversarial approaches. By engaging with the parties about the issues between them, they also challenge the parties to think differently about the possible outcomes of the process.
Facilitators do the same although they are also used at earlier stages of conflict or post-dispute when parties are not under pressure to reach a settlement on a specific claim or dispute. Facilitators might also be drawn in to assist individuals and groups to have difficult conversations, or even to facilitate a complex negotiation.
In a recent case in South Africa, six defendant companies to a very complex negotiation made use of a facilitator. The negotiation involved a multi-billion pound, occupational lung disease class action claim, by hundreds of thousands of workers in the gold mining industry. The companies first used the facilitator to assist them to find common ground among themselves and then to facilitate negotiation with the claimants' lawyers on a settlement. This successful facilitation lasted for over four years.
Skilled facilitators have a process tool box at their fingertips. This includes:
- Working with parties in joint meetings
- Using private meetings
- Bringing principals together for focused trouble shooting discussions
- Using mixed task teams and subgroups
- Drawing in agreed experts
- Staging the process over time so work can be done in between sessions for reporting back at the joint meetings.
They also bring to bear in the facilitation the mediator tool box of excellent communication skills and the capacity to build and stay in rapport with parties at all stages of the process.
Perhaps the BREXIT negotiation would have benefited from facilitation by expert third parties from its earliest stages. Skilled independent facilitators, whether working separately with one party or appointed jointly to facilitate the process as a whole, are well placed to turbocharge a potentially difficult negotiation or conversation - such as this one has proved to be. Whatever the situation, you would be wise to consider using a facilitator to turbocharge it.
Originally published 20 August 2018
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