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CONFLICT RESOLUTION: The Fear vs. Opportunity Approach When Working With Unions

Teachers in the nation’s third-largest school district went on strike Monday morning after negotiations for a new contract collapsed, giving some 350,000 students an unexpected day off but leading to frustrations among parents and indications that a settlement may not be close.  Chicago Public Schools and the union representing teachers have been embroiled for months in a bitter dispute over wages, job security and teacher evaluations, reported the New York Times.

In an interview on CNN’s Parker/Spitzer program Leo Gerard, the President of the United Steelworkers International talks about how the union had worked with all the US companies that produce steel to make them more competitive.  It resulted in company mergers, redesigned health care plans for retirees, gain sharing and most importantly, a collaborative relationship between the union and management that has made US steel again competitive in the global marketplace.  At some point, someone in that paradigm had to begin thinking differently for this change to take place.  By shifting from fear to opportunity, a whole new set of options came forth.

When we train on conflict resolution, one of the critical insights we try to convey is how we have a choice to see the conflict as a threat or an opportunity.  Always before I limited this insight to tense situations where people were experiencing disagreement.  But in truth, all of life can be simplified to these two paradigms as well.  Is my paradigm, or mental model in life, focused on fear (seeing everything as a threat) or opportunity?  Do I see scarcity or plenty in a situation or a relationship?  Let’s look at each from a work life perspective.

If our focus or mental model is one of fear, then we are always on guard, slightly suspicious of other people’s motives, holding back what we really think or how we really feel because of how others might react.  It starts out slowly at first with the supervisor who reminds us not to speak up in meetings because we’re too young, or the performance review that really wasn’t fair or accurate, but ended up in our personnel file anyway.  We harden ourselves and begin to see the workplace as fearful.  We add to that the emotional pain we actually do experience sometimes on the job, especially now when people lose their jobs even from no fault of their own.

What would the workplace look like if we viewed it from an opportunity mindset?  One of my worst flaws is to read into people’s behavior and think I can determine their motive. For example, we might see the bath towel on the floor after our husband is done with the shower and immediately think he was too lazy to pick it up.  At work, I might think that someone else’s new idea is really a commentary on how they didn’t like my idea.  We climb this mental “ladder of inference” (Chris Argyius) so quickly and even feel proud that we’ve got the whole situation all figured out.  Well, nonsense – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wrong.

If we can see relationships at work from a place of plenty, the motive we would ascribe to someone’s behavior would start out positive (rather than negative as it always does).  We would recognize that even their negative behavior is simply because of some fear that is conditioning their response.  In other words, we would give them the benefit of the doubt.  We would frame the situation differently.  Even if the news is bad news, we could step back and say – what’s the opportunity for us here?  Our whole response to the circumstance would be different.  We wouldn’t need to ‘cc’ everyone on emails, use our voice mail to screen calls or email to communicate with the person next door to me.  It would look different.

The Mission
Think of each day as a piece of paper with a line down the middle.  On the top of the left side is the word FEAR, and on the top of the right side is the word OPPORTUNITY.    Throughout the day, in every interaction, decision or plan, mentally place it on one side or the other.  Hopefully, over time, we’ll be able to move my thinking to the right side – the side of opportunity.  “Research tells us that fully 92% of our worries either will never come to pass or can’t be changed,” states Kurt W. Mortensen in the book, Persuasion IQ.


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