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How can managers avoid workers going on strike?

By Mark Tutton for CNN
French Total workers were on strike this week.
French Total workers were on strike this week.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Expert: Strike situations tend to be much more adversarial, aggressive, positional
  • Empathy is crucial for negotiations, say business school lecturer
  • Mediation can avoid damaging conflict and litigation
  • Try to fob off employees with excuses and they will likely see through the spin

London, England (CNN) -- A wave of labor unrest across Europe has highlighted just how important negotiation skills are in the current economic climate.

In Germany Lufthansa staff took industrial action while British Airways workers voted for strike action. Meanwhile air traffic controllers and oil-refinery workers in France have taken industrial action, and in Spain and Greece there have been protests over government austerity measures.

But dealing with strikes is just the most extreme example of the kind of negotiations managers have to deal with every day. Knowing how to negotiate is essential for resolving workplace conflicts, making deals with clients, and moving an organization forward.

Dr Mark de Rond teaches successful negotiation strategies at Cambridge Judge Business School, in England. He told CNN the ability to empathize is a valuable tool in any negotiation -- but it's a skill senior managers don't always develop.

"If you look at management, particularly at the higher levels, you have people who are very busy and empathy probably doesn't come naturally to them," he told CNN.

"It sometimes doesn't occur to people that others might experience life differently than they do or might have different ambitions or different priorities."

De Rond said the very qualities that make some people senior-management material -- ambition, being strong willed and knowing what they want -- can make it harder for them to understand other workers.

Negotiation Tips
- "Realize that in order to solve your own problem you have to help others solve theirs," de Rond tells CNN.

- Central to negotiations is the idea of BATNA - the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. In other words, if you don't resolve this dispute, what is your best alternative?

"Thinking through your BATNA is very important - people don't do that nearly as often as they should," Subramanian told CNN. "But what's often more important is thinking through the other side's BATNA and understanding their walk-away alternative."

- "People will only ever agree with you for reasons of their own, so you have to understand what the world looks like from their point of view," says de Rond. "Empathy has a lot going for it."

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But no matter how well a manager understands their employees, there will always be times when they have to make decisions that can lead to resentment. When it comes to announcing job cuts, de Rond said management can soften the blow by making it clear to employees exactly why they have had to make that decision.

Try to fob off employees with excuses and chances are that they'll see right through the spin. Once an announcement has been made it's important to make time to listen to the concerns of the people affected, he said.

Even straight-forward negotiations can become complicated. Harvard Business School and Law School professor Guhan Subramanian told CNN: "In the environment we're in now there's a lot more cost pressure on organizations, so negotiations with suppliers and customers and employees can get heated in a way that wasn't as common a few years ago."

Subramanian said that in negotiations it's important to understand the distinction between "interests" and "positions." A client's position might be that they need a five percent price decrease, but they might have certain underlying interests that can be satisfied with something other than a straight-forward price decrease.

"If you are listening carefully for interests you can shape and craft deals across the table that satisfy the interests of both sides without necessarily compromising," he said.

When workplace disputes do arise, for example between a manager and an employee, mediation can be an effective way to defuse conflict, said de Rond.

The idea is for a trained mediator to provide a forum for a conversation to take place between the aggrieved parties. The mediator's job is to remain neutral and make sure the conversation stays fair and balanced, helping both parties reach a resolution.

De Rond said a growing number of companies are choosing to develop an in-house mediation service as a way of avoiding costly and damaging litigation.

"I'm a very strong advocate for mediation as a way to circumvent or resolve conflict without resorting to litigation," he said. "It's difficult, but the results are so much more desirable than anything litigation could provide."

When it comes to the most extreme disputes, Subramanian has some advice that might prove useful for Europe's feuding workers and management.

"Strike situations tend to be much more adversarial, aggressive, and positional," he said.

"In general, people who approach the situation as a problem to be solved rather than a battle of wills are more effective negotiators in the long run."