Summary of Research

This work has its roots at the State of California, Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) where Jim Tamm was a senior Administrative Law Judge and former Regional Director for 25 years prior to becoming Managing Director of BCon WSA International. PERB is the state agency established to oversee dispute resolution and collective bargaining among public employees. In the late 1980s, the staff at PERB noticed that they kept seeing the same parties end up in litigation each time they had a dispute. Other parties, operating under the same statutes, were able to resolve disputes more effectively. They rarely ended up in litigation. The dysfunctional relationships were using a disproportional amount of State’s resources. The staff wanted to find out why some relationships were effective and others abysmal.

PERB sent out a massive statewide survey to over 6,000 labor-management practitioners to determine the differences between effective and ineffective labor-management relationships. They discovered that those constituents needing greater assistance in resolving disputes primarily lacked skills in relationship building and conflict resolution.

Armed with that information, PERB assembled a team of experts from all over the country to develop a training program to assist its public sector constituency. Because the initial workshops were targeted for public sector school districts, the task force included experts from all the major representative groups in California public education, as well as consultants from the California State Mediation/Conciliation Service, the Harvard Program on Negotiations, and PERB. Jim was assigned to the project as both a program designer and faculty member because of his mediation experience. He has mediated almost 2,000 employment disputes, including more school labor strikes than anyone else in the nation.

With funding provided by the State of California, and the Hewlett and Stuart Foundations, a very experiential and highly intensive training program was designed by the team. It focused on both relationship building skills and problem solving skills (primarily regarding labor-management negotiations and conflict resolution).

The team established criteria for acceptance into the program. Only labor- management groups attending the workshop together would be considered. They had to be willing to work with a follow-up consultant during the year after the training. They would have to send the decision makers from both labor and management in order to be accepted into the training. Thus, in a school district setting, participants would typically include school board members, the superintendent, the superintendent’s cabinet, the entire management negotiating team, all the elected union leadership, the union’s negotiating team, key union stewards, state or national union representatives and a paid executive director or other full time union staff member.

Once criteria were established, the team sought out the most dysfunctional, litigious, adversarial, labor-management relationships it could find, and invited them to participate in the program. Finding dysfunctional relationships proved to be the easiest part of the project. The groups ranged in size from about 15 up to almost 50 participants from each labor-management relationship. In the first year the project worked with 14 different labor-management relationships.

During the first year the team knew from anecdotal reports that the program was having a very positive impact on the relationships it had worked with. The team didn’t fully realize until about 16 months after the program began just how wildly successful the program really was. At that time the first systematic research on the impact of the program was conducted by independent researchers. The results of the program in reversing unproductive, adversarial patterns were astonishing, particularly in light of the fact that union-management collective bargaining relationships are traditionally some of the most adversarial relationships in existence today.

This first study, conducted and published in 1991 by the Institute of Industrial Relations at the University of California, Berkeleyi, confirmed that transformations from ineffective, adversarial, non-trusting relationships into effective, cooperative and trusting working relationships were the norm, rather than the exception among participants. Some of the significant findings were:

  • Prior to the training 70% of participants characterized their working relationship as adversarial. After the training less than 1% said it was adversarial.
  • Prior to the training 57% said their working relationship was unproductive. After the training 87% felt their working relationship was productive.
  • Prior to the workshop, “a lack of mutual understanding” was the most cited characteristic of their labor-management relationship. After the training, “effective communication” became the most cited characteristic.
  • Participants reported improved constituency support, which was characterized as excellent by only 19% before the training and 58% after the training.
  • Participants believed they were now able to focus discussions concerning day-to-day issues on interests and options (78%); before the training such discussions were focused on positions (82%).
  • Improvements were experienced in resolving conflicts and managing differences, with 89% of the participants reporting more effectiveness in this area after the training.
  • When asked whether techniques learned in the training were used subsequently, high usage was reported in all four areas surveyed (general problem solving, resolving grievances, collective bargaining, and building trust.)
  • Almost all the participants felt the workshops had a highly positive impact on both the process and the products of their working relationships.
  • The study concluded that the beneficial results were not a momentary “honeymoon” response, but rather were sustainable gains.

The project team was, of course, ecstatic over the findings. Publication of the research enabled Janet Walden, the project leader, to obtain additional funding from the State and the Hewlett and Stuart Foundations, and the training continued at a faster pace. By three years after the first pilot program the team had trained 94 labor-management relationships. The dramatic positive results were becoming apparent to the educational community in California, and then eventually to other states and Canada.

In 1993 a second study was published on the impact of the training among the first 94 relationshipsii. This research, co-authored by Jim and PERB Sacramento Regional Director Les Chisholm, studied information obtained from the State of California, which kept accurate data about all labor-management conflicts in California’s almost 1,200 public school systems.

The research documented an astonishing 85% reduction in the rate of disputes filed with the State among employers and unions which had participated in training three years earlier. Both the degree of the impact and the long lasting effect of the training were quite remarkable. Like the earlier University of California study, this research also concluded that the gains were sustainable over a long-term by the great majority of relationships.

By this time the California Legislature had established a non- profit foundation to continue the training in the public sector in California.

During the first three years of the project, in addition to being on the training faculty, Jim had been assigned to conduct much of the follow-up consulting with parties after the training. He found that while most groups were able to sustain their gains, some were not. There seemed to be a pattern existing among the small number of groups that reverted to adversarial ways. Most of those groups that were unable to sustain the positive relationship over the long-term seemed to be having more trouble with the relationship building skills than they were with the problem solving methodologies they had been taught. People became defensive, quit listening, started making incorrect assumptions, and were not giving each other the benefit of the doubt. They often withheld important information, engaged in public name calling campaigns, and treated the other party as the enemy. These relationships deteriorated very quickly into what they were before the training, or sometimes even became worse. Fortunately for the project, these failures were rare.

At about this time Jim teamed up with Ron Luyet, a Managing Director of the international consulting, training and publishing firm Business Consultants Network, Inc.iv. Ron had a background as a psychotherapist and executive consultant, and his strength was in helping people and organizations understand the deeper interpersonal dynamics that occur in the workplace.

Working together we (Jim and Ron) strengthened the interpersonal relationship building aspects of the training, adding FIRO (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation) theoryv to the program. We also modified the training for non-labor- management groups making it more broadly available to the private sector. This broadened the training’s application beyond a labor relations setting, making it particularly effective for executive education programs, new or established work teams, leadership development, customer or supplier relationships, management teams or the interface between units historically at odds with each other such as product development and manufacturing or marketing.

The program, as modified, was then offered to a wide array of participants, from the US Department of Defense to toy companies, from pharmaceutical executive teams to linemen in power companies. Our program was also offered internationally where we worked with a large number of human resource consultants and internal trainers.

In 1999, a third study was conducted on the impact of the program as modified for non labor-management groups. Professor Mayte Barbavi surveyed participants from 9 countries trained over a six year period after the addition of FIRO theory. Professor Barba asked participants to self-report on their effectiveness before and after the training regarding four areas; (1) reducing their defensiveness in conflict, (2) getting their interests met in conflict, (3) problem solving effectiveness, and (4) effectiveness at building and maintaining long-term climates of trust. The results supported our belief that there is a strong relationship between the ability to stay non-defensive in conflict and getting your interests met in conflict.

Participants reported, on average, the following gains:

  • A 49.5% increase in effectiveness at reducing their own defensiveness in conflicted situations.
  • A 44.8% increase in effectiveness at getting their interests met in conflicted situations.
  • A 31.5% increase in effectiveness at problem solving.
  • A 26.4% increase in effectiveness at building and maintaining long-term climates of trust.

Like the two earlier studies, this one also concluded that the increases in effectiveness reported by participants were both substantial and sustainable over a long term. The training and research reported above makes it clear that collaboration skills can be learned quickly, and effectiveness can be dramatically improved in a short time.

copyright 2000, Jim Tamm