Flexibility means not having to bend over backwards


Stephen Deans has now resigned his role at the Ineos petrochemical plant on Grangemouth and will not seek re-election to his role at the Trade union Unite.  It isn’t surprising that the employer saw him as the enemy and with the full power of hindsight the workers feel that he should pay the price for taking them to the brink.

Ineos runs a large petrochemical plant and refinery at Grangemouth in Scotland.  They argued that costs had to be cut to make the petrochemical plant viable.  And without the petrochemicals side of the business the refinery isn’t competitive and so was at risk of closure.  To make the savings some fundamental changes to the Terms and Conditions of employees were being demanded and the Union Unite were unsurprisingly strongly against this.

Now we could debate the rights and wrongs of this case at great length.  Depending on your viewpoint either:

  • The fat cat employers used bullying tactics and threats to cow the workers into submission and their threats of a total closure was tantamount to blackmailing the Government.; Or
  • The militant Unionists used this as a platform to spout their ill informed dogma with little or no regard for the livelihoods of their members and communities and no recognition of economic realities

In the end Ineos announced closure of the entire site and within 24 hours the Unions accepted all of the proposed changes. Having lost on all counts the workers celebrated getting their jobs back.  No doubt it will take a lot of effort and time to rebuild trust on both sides.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the way this battle was fought (and battle it surely was) it feels that we could have avoided the brinkmanship if both parties had been willing to see the confrontation through the others’ eyes and from a third party perspective.   This was an extreme case but how many times do we get ourselves stuck in a negotiation (be it with the kids about bedtime or the boss about a project) and are there any steps we can take to stop the little things escalating and creating an issue that will live on after the immediate problem is resolved?

Certainly trying to see things from another perspective always helps to create balance and avoid disputes arising – this can be a great role for a coach or mentor.

Once we get into negotiation there are simple things we can do that help in all cases; let’s see how Unite and Ineos measure up:

  1. Have a clear view of the desired outcome (I think both Unite and Ineos were clear on this)
  2. Develop as many options as possible and  avoid a fixed position by agreeing the upper and lower limits of the range of acceptable outcomes (I suspect that Management would have given a little away but Unite had limited flexibility)
  3. Identify potential areas of agreement (hard to say how they did on this but given their entrenched positions I’d say they failed to agree on even the basic point that the Plant was worth saving)
  4. Identify areas to be resolved and plan how to discuss them (Ineos did seem to want to talk but Unite wanted to demonstrate outside the homes of the Directors)
  5. Determine what your best alternative to an agreement is. (Management were clear on this that if they did not agree they’d walk away from Grangemouth, Unite clearly hadn’t got a plan B – unless it was abject surrender)

No surprises that I score this heavily in favour of the Company who would feel that they ‘won’.  This amply demonstrates the Law of Requisite Variety: In any system those with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will control the system.

Try these steps out in your next negotiation, get a friend or colleague  (or an external Coach) to help you see the bigger picture and generate ideas.  You’ll increasingly find win win scenarios popping up all over and you’ll know when to back down graciously, avoiding pointless acrimony.

If only Unite had shown more flexibility they might well have had a better result and Stephen Deans would still have a job.