Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Handle a Company Strike

Dear Joseph,

We are headed for our first nursing strike. Employees are heartbroken at the situation. Patients and families are concerned about the quality of care with contingent workers on site, and long-term relationships are being fractured by the decision to picket or work. I continue to hope that we’ll rely on what unites us—doing work that’s important, feeling like a valuable contributor, and doing what’s best for our patients, families, employees, and community. What crucial conversations principles can help us during this difficult period?

Strike One

Dear Strike One,

I’m sorry to hear that dialogue has broken down. And I wish you a speedy resolution so that all can return to the core mission of improving the lives of all concerned. Obviously, the negotiation process will take its own course, but there is much that individual managers can do to influence both the length and tenor of that course, and the velocity of healing once the strike ends.

  1. Manage Your Story. One of the worst effects of a strike is the way it feeds divisive judgments and stories between the groups. Physical separation means you are only talking with those sympathetic to one set of interests. This is dangerous. It reinforces tribalism and animosity. If one group makes a statement in the press, the other group tends to hunt for pernicious interpretations of it. For example, public complaints about wages or work conditions are reprocessed as evidence of selfishness or dishonesty. The best thing you can do is encourage all (beginning with yourself) to make the most generous appraisal possible of others’ actions. Carefully avoid using divisive labels like “nonexempt” or “union” or “labor.” Use humanizing labels like “colleagues” or “our nursing team.” If you start to feel righteous indignation toward your striking colleagues, use that as a cue to begin challenging your own story.
  2. Disrupt Their Default Story. Don’t feed the other’s story about you. Generate disconfirming data. Realize that as difficult as it is for you to maintain a positive story about others, it is equally difficult for them to maintain one about you. All they need for you to do in order to confirm their judgments of you is nothing. Let that soak in for a moment. When others feel hurt or threatened, all they need from you in order to confirm their “villain story” about you is nothing. If you are simply impassive, disconnected, distant, you are actively offering them all they need to confirm their suspicions about your intentions and your lack of concern for them. Imagine, for example, you are sitting across from your boss. You open up in a very vulnerable way about concerns you have with her management style. The entire time she stares at you impassively. No smile. No frown. No response. What would you be thinking? In this moment of anxiety for you, you are looking for data from your boss that you are safe. And she is offering nothing. Which makes you feel . . . unsafe. That’s what is going on during a strike. If management simply maintains distance, you unwittingly confirm the worst suspicions of those who are scared and hurting. The best thing to do is commit unexpected acts of generosity. Send a kind note. Smile if you see someone in public. Take cookies to someone’s house. It isn’t a battle line if people regularly cross it. So, don’t let a line form between you and your colleagues beyond what is legally necessary.

These suggestions aren’t just key to breaching employment disputes. They are key to building the high trust communities we all want across the world. I hope you’ll show the rest of us how it’s done.


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