Philip Whiteley's Blog

February 26, 2013

Do people actually want to cooperate with each other?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:35 am

A few years ago at a conference, I heard an entertaining account from a trade unionist who had become a proponent of partnership deals in the workplace – that is, where employee representatives seek to maximize their area of agreement with managers in order to promote better workplaces and opportunities. In doing so, he related how he was a convert. Back in the 1970s, he had been a militant: organizing industrial disputes, buzzing around the country in a van to mobilize the strikers. ‘Sometimes people ask me what it was like,’ he concluded. ‘And I reply: “I loved every minute of it.”’

For many people, conflict is exhilarating, harmony is dull. This includes employee relations, especially at a policy level.

You can divide the relevant issues broadly into two – the first being leadership and skills, and the second to do with legislation. In the former, the employer interest groups and the trade unions agree with one another.Taking the UK as an example, Frances O’Grady from the Trade Union Congress and Lord Heseltine of the Conservatives have begun collaborating on business development. All main political parties support the Engage for Success initiative. According to one estimate, increasing employee engagement would add over £25 billion to economic growth. If you are sceptical of this claim, look at the more detailed work by individuals such as Haig Nalbantian showing not only the gains of a more engaging workplace, but the costs of an exploitative one. Many ‘cost-saving’ initiatives where workers’ benefits are slashed don’t help the business, because employers haven’t factored in the huge costs of high staff turnover, weak skills, and so on.

Yet are these the issues that make the pulse race in the bi-partisan lobbying world? The second policy area, legislation, concerns ‘rights for workers’ if you support them, or ‘red tape’ if you don’t. This is what really excites activists on both sides. There is no clear evidence that a ‘flexible labour market’ automatically helps business development (the employers’ lobby case); but nor does it necessarily diminish job and career opportunities for workers (the trade union argument). It is extremely unlikely that legislative changes could have anything like the economic impact of better leadership and skills, but these are less appealing subjects because their discussion raises the risk of having to agree with the other side. It gets in the way of the Two Minutes’ Hate. Sometimes, when there is a bitter political conflict, it’s not the issue that motivates, but the fight.

Those of us who agree with the idea of Appreciative Inquiry – that people can learn to cooperate much more effectively if they take the trouble to understand one another – are in conflict with the world view that it’s always better to get your retaliation in first. The former is a rational, not a utopian case. For the trade unionist I quoted at the start of this article, switching from militancy to reasonable cooperation was a victory of head over heart. Normally, being ‘nice’ is portrayed as the opposite.

A relish for conflict is something we have to acknowledge and discuss: it’s not that folk cannot believe the evidence that cooperation can be mutually profitable, it’s that many don’t want to.

For more on sustainable leadership and cooperation, go to the Radical Shift blog here.

From 28 April, the New Normal, Radical Shift book will be on sale.



  1. Absolutely fascinating line of thought! It had never occurred to me that some people just find life a bit more exciting when conflict exists. In my learning journey of undergoing my masters NLP training I became aware of ‘mis-matchers’ whose style naturally leans to spotting difference, errors etc and are enthused by it and frequently seek change. However my world view back at that time was different and this article brings that concept to life for me in a new context. It would certainly explain some behaviors I have witnessed over the years!

    I guess the question I am left with is so what to do about it? Is it a case of simply acknowledging and accepting the consequences of unresolved debate or is there something more?

    Great article that has provoked a lot of thought!

    Comment by Ali Godding (@EngagementAG) — February 27, 2013 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  2. Ali – thanks for your comments. I’m not trained in NLP, but that concept of ‘mis-matchers’ makes sense. Sometimes the conflict that ends up being ruinous starts out with understandable fears, but then people overstate their case, respond to the response and it escalates. There’s a fine line between anger (acceptable) and hatred (which is not). The answer is not to paper over genuine differences or appease an aggressive power. Difficult.

    Comment by felipewh — February 27, 2013 @ 11:51 am | Reply

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