SA labour negotiations: a zero-sum game in which everyone loses
For many, workers’ unions still offer the only mechanism by which they can wield some form of power in the workplace
Donald Trump has famously and repeatedly hailed himself as the consummate negotiator and deal maker, boasting about his hard-nosed prowess at always securing the best deals.
That zero-sum or “fixed pie” mantra — that any loss for you is a gain for me, and that we’re bartering for a finite amount of value — may have made him a supposedly wealthy man (even if he had to resort to nearly 2,000 legal cases to enforce many of his deals), but we have also seen in recent times that when he doesn’t call all the shots, his so-called no-nonsense approach to negotiating is woefully inadequate.
Whether in dealing with political opponents in his Congress, with other global leaders, or even judges who have time and again overruled his administration’s policies (63 times, according to one count), he has proven himself unable to browbeat or bully his way into what he would consider a winning deal.
In SA we’re blessed to have experienced another path. We’ve witnessed the transformative power of authentic negotiation, where bitter foes — the apartheid government on the one hand, and a loose conglomerate of long-outlawed liberation organisations on the other — sat down to broker what most had once believed inconceivable: a new SA that would bring to an end a divisive and centuries-old political and social order.
While not everyone got exactly what they had wanted from that negotiated settlement, of course, it can still today be convincingly argued that it prevented a simmering and potentially calamitous civil war and promised something new.
Sadly, we have, over the past 25 years, forgotten some of these lessons, with all parties post-election seemingly more divided than ever, focusing on each other’s faults rather than on imagining a better future.
There is a desire and the need for a better form of negotiation, one that is not founded on a combative, Trumpian, dog-eat-dog dictum
We seem incapable of engaging like compatriots. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in annual wage negotiations, which are almost invariably punctuated by deadlocks, disputes and the euphemistically named industrial actions. According to the most recent department of labour’s industrial action report, SA experienced a record-high of 132 strikes in 2017 (the latest available numbers), costing us a shocking 960,889 working days. Unfortunately, matters are not likely to change in the foreseeable future — SA remains a highly unionised country, not least because of the indelible role unions played during the liberation of the country.
For many, workers’ unions still offer the only mechanism by which they can wield some form of power in the workplace. About 25% of workers are said to still belong to unions (down from a high of 45.2% in 1994). This is relatively low when compared to some European countries where there are still high levels of unionised workers — more than 91% in Iceland and more than 67% in Sweden. In France, unions, however, only represent about 11% of workers and in the US only 10%.
Unfortunately, in SA, negotiations have historically been conducted against the backdrop of an adversarial context and culture that we are not likely to shed easily. Parties often begin the process with no greater aim than to extract as much value from each other as they can. Rather than sitting down at the negotiation table with the understanding that their initial positions are mere points of departure, they remain locked into these positions, engaging in a relentless and value-destroying tug of war.
However, there is a desire and the need for a better form of negotiation, one that is not founded on a combative, Trumpian, dog-eat-dog dictum. In my teaching around the world, managers and CEOs, government officials and union leaders, have warmly embraced the notion of value-creating negotiations.
The feedback I receive typically echoes a common problem: that managers, leaders and workers, to their great dismay, appreciate that they have looked at the workplace, the political landscape, and at the world through the wrong prism. They realise that they have for too long held to the notion that for one person to win, the other must invariably lose.
Value gained or lost?
Furthermore, the insight also dawns of them that this misguided philosophy has a profound effect at the negotiation table, as it merely serves to exacerbate irrational competitor behaviour, thus leading to neither party truly gaining anything. In SA we see the effect of this, for example, when unions renege on the substance of a multi-year agreement or completely pull out of an agreement before its term is up.
What this shows is that the agreement was sub-optimal, with neither party taking co-ownership of it and working to protect its implementation for its full duration.
This failure sends a clear signal that both parties did not believe they had gained value through the negotiation, hence the party that feels it “lost out” experiences a sense of victimisation. For any negotiation to pass the acid test of holding for the duration of the agreement, both parties need to look back upon the negotiation as a fair distribution of value.
Negotiation ... should be predicated on the recognition that working against each other destroys value, whereas working together creates value for both parties
The irony is that so much more can be achieved when parties do not try to merely strip value from each other, but rather resolve to work together to create optimal value for each other. Only when they move the frame from value-sapping “I vs I” competitive bargaining to “We-inspired” co-operative negotiation will they discover that the agreement can be mutually beneficial.
When they stop merely dividing the “cake” and instead opt to work together to build a “bakery”, they will find they can exceed the value they expected to gain when sitting down at the negotiation table.
Negotiation is a sophisticated interaction between people representing different parties. As such, it should be predicated on the recognition that working against each other destroys value, whereas working together creates value for both parties.
Trump is not unique. For too long too many have played the zero-sum game at which they consider themselves to be the master. Sadly, we have seen the limitations and consequences of this approach — Trump having created a nation that is seemingly at war with itself and the basic tenets on which it was founded.
If we are to deal with the myriad of problems most countries and organisations face in these turbulent and challenging times, it is essential that leaders and managers at all levels of government and in the corporate world embrace value-creating negotiation as the most viable path towards building a future in which we will all flourish; the imagined future that sustained Nelson Mandela for more than 27 years during his incarceration.
• Venter, a psychologist and former SA director-general of communication and information, is currently adjunct professor at the Trinity Business School in Ireland and visiting professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business, where he convenes the negotiation skills for managers programme.