The Negotiator Magazine

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How much the parties like each other does not matter; how well the parties work with their commonalties and through their differences to achieve their goals is critical.

The actions individuals must undertake to create a good working relationship are specific to the context in which negotiate. We distinguish four categories: a) the relationships among the leaders; b) the relationships among the bargainers; c) the relationships between bargainers and key stakeholders; and d) the relationships between bargainers and facilitators.

A. Between Leaders: Establishing A United Front.

The Danger: Leaders can undermine collaboration by publicly attacking each other, by modeling and rewarding adversarial behavior, by lacking vision or direction, and by not focusing on the big picture.

The hard work done by the leaders in San Diego on improving their own working relationships was an essential springboard to the success of the negotiations. It is difficult work because leaders are often most directly implicated and affected by past acrimony. While the argument that leaders must take the first step seems straightforward, it is not always clear what actions leaders can take to create constructive working relationships.

San Diego leaders took some effective actions:

Timely and Strategic Communication. Immediately after the 1996 strike settled, Union President Marc Knapp and Superintendent Bertha Pendleton contacted each other. The school board, led by President Ron Ottinger, knew that producing a different result meant taking dramatic action. All recognized working together was the only way to change the atmosphere, allow productive work on school sites and lay the foundation among labor and management for less acrimonious and damaging future contract negotiations.

Strong and Consistent Signals. The San Diego leaders sent strong signals to the community that they intended to work together, and expected others to work together as well. They stood and spoke together at public forums. They refrained from undercutting each other. Union and management jointly brought together nearly every principal and union representative in the entire school district to discuss the recent history and involve them in creating a community vision. In addition, the group learned and practiced collaboration techniques. Leadership in San Diego successfully sent a consistent message that collaboration, not adversarial relationships, was desired at the school sites.

Staying the Course through Adverse Situations. Throughout the contract negotiations leaders on both sides refrained from publicly attacking one another. At times, this proved difficult. While the contract negotiations were going on, a different union-management project backfired, and the union president was furious. Normally, he would have penned an inflammatory letter to the newspaper that blasted the management and rallied his troops. However, he had made a commitment to hold back on public attacks while bargaining was in session. However tempted, he kept his word, and the talks continued.

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Copyright © 2002 Grande Lum and Monica Christie