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Back to School for Labor Relations Training

Cornell University’s Sally Klingel discusses how conflict management programs teach skills and adapt to changing union landscapes.

June 4, 2014
Related Topics: Management, The Latest, Engagement, Organizational Development, Management Training, Change Management, Emotional Intelligence

With a change in union presence — be it a new union or a new attitude toward labor management relations — comes a need for leadership education.

One place learning leaders can turn to for help is outreach programs hosted by universities that target organizations in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Although these programs used to be fairly abundant, decreased union membership has left only a handful in existence today, including ones at Harvard, Michigan State and Cornell universities. sallyklingel

For 40 years, Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School has shifted with the changes in the union landscape. Sally Klingel, director of labor management relations at ILR’s Scheinman Institute on Conflict Resolution, travels 30 to 40 times a year teaching companies how to work with unions more effectively. Her programs, along with open enrollment sessions held at the institute’s New York City conference center, teach dispute resolution, organizational conflict management and relationship building techniques. Klingel took time from crisscrossing the country to discuss her work and what skills company leadership needs to form better rapport with unions, as well as how companies have to adapt to the changing landscape of organized labor.

What skills are most important for company leaders to have (and learning leaders to teach) when an organization wants to form a more harmonious relationship with a union?

Klingel: The most important skills for leaders to have to build a good labor-management relationship include:

  • Good problem-solving skills, including the creativity and tenacity to find new solutions to old problems.
  • High tolerance for ambiguity, and ability to see others’ perspective.
  • Comfort with conflict, and confidence in one’s ability to handle conflict.

Problem-solving skills are the most important. 

Are these skills teachable? How can they be taught effectively?

Klingel: Everyone can learn these, and when we teach negotiation skills, we teach it as a problem-solving approach to handling conflict.  

Practice is also important. Taking opportunities to get directly involved in negotiations and conflict resolution, rather than avoiding or delegating, develops confidence and competence. The more direct experience leaders gain, the better they will understand the limits and opportunities in their labor-management relationship and how they can make it more effective.   

Unions in traditional industrial environments are shrinking, but labor organizations are starting to appear in service, health care, retail, sports and education sectors. How has this change reflected in your work?

Klingel: Instead of taking the same blueprint developed largely for an industrial union and applying it to all these workplaces, there’s more experimentation developing procedures that will work well for each sector. The way you handle disputes in a health care organization may be different than how you handle disputes in a paper plant because in a health care setting there might be occupational standards that have to be met and professional bodies that may have to be involved. So there’s definitely innovation going on because of the change in unionization.

There are more organizations searching for how to handle conflicts because they don’t have a formalized system that they may have had through a union contract, and so they’re really looking at how to set up systems that will be fair and transparent. More and more organizations are interested in setting up good conflict management systems as opposed to leaving it up to individual supervisors or managers to do their best.

What are your future plans for the program to adapt to these changes?

Klingel: We have faculty doing research on all of this, and their research is a rich source of information for our programing. As they’re studying changes in, say, arbitration procedures or grievance handling positions, we’re able to have up-to-date research on different occupations, different industries and different procedures. … We have a nice circle between our teaching, research, students’ involvement and what they’ve learned from professionals to bring back into the classroom and vice versa.

We are doing more work internationally. With globalization, we have professionals coming into our programs who are managing sites in multiple countries and are interested in learning how to understand what’s going on in a country that has a different legislative framework and different culture in how they deal with unions and conflict resolution in the workplace.

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