From conflict to co-operation

Ed Mayo from Co-operatives UK prepared this talk for Oasis on From Conflict to Co-operation.

 

In an organisational setting conflict gets in the way. You want people to work together in a team, to communicate and to have a common purpose.

Conflict is not something we find easy. Many of us will run away from conflict or we will change the subject or try and defuse conflict perhaps through comedy.

Conflict will also often lead to confrontation and from that on to violence or power clashes.

This video is around a different outcome for confrontation recognising that there is space for assertive confrontation to lead through to negotiation and shared goals rather than to violence.

In an organisational setting conflict comes for many reasons. It can come where there is competition for resources, or over power, sometimes over values as well.

Conflict can come through emotion, when we have insecurity or fears, through poor communications or through poor process and that’s where organisations can really make things different. Or conflict can also come simply through difference – maybe cultural difference, personal difference, maybe gender difference.

We’ve developed some tools in the co-operative sector which try and give models or styles for how people tend to behave in the context of conflict. These five styles relate to different points in terms of relationships from individual to collaborative relationships; and to goals, individual goals through to shared goals.

The first is competitive and that’s where we focus entirely on achieving our own ends at the expense of relations with others. The approach is aggressive and unco-operative but equally, in some extreme situations it may be called for, for example to protect the vulnerable.

The second is accommodating. That’s where we believe that good relationships with others are more important than our own needs. You could describe that as unassertive or powerless but you could also describe it as selfless and focusing on your own responsibilities more than your own rights.

The third is avoidance, when we are neither achieving our own goals nor are we building good relationships. It’s a passive approach but could also be described at times as tactical withdrawal.

The fourth is compromising, when we find ways in which we can achieve our own goals without confrontation: splitting the difference, taking turns and the like.

The fifth is co-operating. That’s where we are working together with the other party investigating ways in which both can win, we can both achieve our goals at the same time as building good relationships. It is the work toward the win-win solutions or outcomes.

Now the different personal tools that can support a shift towards co-operation include obviously the emotional skills of empathy and listening, but also the emotional confidence around assertiveness.

I tend to find that in the best co-operative cultures there’s a real honesty at work, where people are able to give criticism and feedback in an assertive way, being specific about the issue and the context or the implications and where there are opportunities for improvement and what those might be.

But equally assertive in receiving feedback as well and being open and clear about understanding how improvement can come forward and what others can do to support you on that.

So those are the skills around emotion. Others can also support where conflict comes up, support from the side, listening, sometimes reframing what people are saying, so that you are paying respects to the point and the motivation they are bringing, but couching it in ways that is more likely to lead to a constructive outcome. Or of course mediation as well is always an option.

That the personal level. In terms of organisational process we’ve all been, I’m sure, in meetings where everybody is shouting to have a say. It’s like a chimpanzee tea party. That is not good meetings and it’s not a good organisational process

There’s so much work and resources around good meetings and how to encourage participation. I do like the Halt method: never make a decision when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

But using the principles of good meeting as well as a basis for decision making within the organisation I see an increasing number of co-operatives for example Outlandish, a digital co-operative, using circles – sociocracy, it’s sometimes called (for the technocrats).

Essentially the principle of the circle is the same as the principle of circle time in a school, where people are equal and they will participate and listen, bringing all of their resources and difference to bear. And then there is consensus around decision making.

The same with the use of software tools like loomeo, a wonderful tool for consensus decision making, developed by a co-operative in New Zealand and many of these are designed to operate within a co-operative culture of distributed leadership where everybody is involved.

The criticism sometimes of co-operative cultures is that it takes too long and you’ve just got to get on with things and that of course may be true, it may take longer to carry everyone with you. But the advantage of that participative form of decision making is that it’s then much easier to implement plans.

The corporate model is one where the boss decides and then tells other people to implement it and we know that strategies fail not because of design so much but because of how they are carried out and whether they are carried out. When people have been involved in the decision they can understand the motivation, the rationale, they can be quicker to change course, quicker to understand the risks as well.

A very good example of a mouthy, energetic, dynamic co-operative business is the Yorkshire whole foods distributor Suma. It’s a wonderful place to visit, full of noise, full of characters. They recruit members right throughout the year, and they don’t recruit people to a job description of tasks, they recruit people in relation to character or values that they are looking for and it’s not for everybody. As one Suma member said to me, “I’d rather tame a tiger than wake up a sleeping sheep.”

And they bring people in, they see how they work together in groups, and they may be working in the business for three months as an employee before the choice is made as to whether to go for membership, for involvement in that way.

And it’s a flat structure, it’s an equal pay business, the largest equal pay employer in Europe and they bring those values of equality to the form of organisation. They have a management committee, which people are elected to, but one of the sayings is that management is a function and not a status. It needs to be done within an organisation but it shouldn’t necessarily be put over other skills and over other people and with that Suma has got a return on equity to die for and financial returns better than John Lewis. And it’s an extraordinary and innovative place to work.

So that’s one example of some of the tools we use in the co-operative sector for marking that journey and that shift from conflict to co-operation. From using the tension and the difference but also principles of respect and equality and openness to form cultures that are extraordinarily effective. I don’t believe that every business should be a co-operative, but I do believe that every business can benefit by being more co-operative.

And ultimately when we are looking at that journey from conflict to co-operation, I like the saying of Antoine de Saint-Exupery that it’s not task and role and structure and process that is most important, it’s really about values, and about motivation and about purpose and about vision, what people want to do together. Any organisation based on shared values, as co-operatives are, can be an extraordinary place to work and an extraordinary force for good.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery