Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Negotiating through exchanging offers and requests

My last article was about the destructive influence of toxic marauders, and today I want to explore a related phenomenon, tensions between levels in organisations. It’s tough when such relationships are made difficult by each cohort believing they’re “OK” while the others are “not OK”.

Inevitably it’s a lose-lose scenario, as the negative attitudes on each side merely reinforce one another. This unless interventions are introduced to align energy and reduce the inevitable waste that results from difficult relationships between higher and lower levels.

This is as true between boards and management as it is between senior and middle management, and on downwards to the lowest cadres. Its consequences are diminished engagement and hence reduced productivity, with higher staff turnover.

Many efforts at culture change aimed at improving such situations fail to make a difference, ephemerally raising expectations and enthusiasm and then leaving those involved disillusioned and worse off than if no effort had been made to resolve the matters between them.

Much of my work as a consultant involves diving into such scenarios, where my role as facilitator is to act as mediator, bringing the levels into alignment through helping them engage constructively with each other, for the benefit of both. Not a straightforward challenge, as skepticism if not cynicism may well be present, at least with some of those involved – often the most vocal.

Creating a safe space in which participants are prepared to be open is the first step, and we facilitators have ways of getting people sufficiently relaxed to share what’s really on their minds and in their hearts. Equally important, as in all mediation, is only to bring the groups together when they are ready to engage with each other with an adequately win-win mindset.

Even when working with just one level, upfront ice-breaking is needed, followed by discussion on what will make the initiative succeed – especially if other such initiatives have failed to make a difference before.

What does it take to develop that win-win mindset? First is to cool off on the “We’re OK-You’re not OK” ego state. Mere finger-pointing blame-games will not resolve the issues. There has to be an acceptance that in some respects we too are “not-OK”, and that for the other level there are “OK” components to their behaviour.

Then, for those at the higher level, to hold back from “looking down” on their subordinates, not to act as “Parents” to their “Children” – never mind just viewing them as naughty ones. And for those at the lower level, to hold back from seeing themselves as “Children” with unreasonable “Parents” against whom they are rebelling. Everyone involved must behave as mature, solution-oriented “Adults”.

Once the “We’re OK-You’re OK” “Adult-Adult” mindsets are adopted, getting to win-win becomes possible. So each level can identify their issues, and then to come forward with relevant offers and requests. The requests must be practical and respectful, while the offers should be genuine and generous – so as to encourage the recipients to respond positively to the requests.

It’s all about give-and-take, not necessarily immediately, but over time. And appreciation should be shown to those who make concessions gracefully.

As external mediators, we are only there for part of the journey, since after some time internal individuals with such skills will have emerged to take on the role and to nurture the fulfilment of the alignment. Make no mistake, the default position is regressing to the status quo ex ante. Those who persist with other than a win-win mindset must be nudged away from such positions, and to assist in this evolution I encourage the use of the common language of OK-OK, Adult-Adult, Win-Win… and the other variants to these positive expressions where appropriate.

I tell people that such change actually needn’t take forever. It’s a choice, I believe, and previous unhelpful ego states can and must be treated as unwanted baggage, with new behaviours being readily attainable.

Those who like to play tough must develop their soft skills, and the quiet ones must summon up the courage to have their voices heard. For everyone this means developing emotional intelligence, something we are all capable of doing if we decide it’s a priority.

Some of us are more natural mediators than others. Do reflect on the extent to which you are among the consensus-builders. For the more you are the more likely you will rise to senior leadership positions. At least in organisations with aligned cultures.