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Two important tactical negotiating lessons

David Bannister
Negotiations Nhs [Converted]

In recent days, we have heard the results of two union ballots in the NHS. One rejected a pay offer and the other accepted the same pay offer. The offer promised nurses and other NHS staff represented by UNISON – the union which accepted - and the RCN, which rejected the deal, a pay increase of 5% and a lump sum the size of which depends on grade. 74% of UNISON members voted to accept the deal, whereas only 46% of RCN members indicated their acceptance. I found myself wondering why. The reason may lie in two important tactical aspects of making a proposal. Let me explain.

The original claim was for 19% which, it was said, was 5% above the level of inflation at the time. At a time when pay increases generally were at around 5% this may seem to be out of line. I will return to this.

The Chief Executive of the RCN, Pat Cullen, had a high media profile from the beginning of the campaign appearing on television on BBC “Question Time” where she accused a journalist – who had sympathy with the nurses’ cause – of being “macho” along with the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay.  All the members of the RCN received a communication from their union telling them that the claim was “affordable, sustainable and deserved”.  The government refused to discuss the 19% claim and Ms Cullen modified it in media interviews saying that if the government would come to the table she would want to discuss a 10% claim – 9% of the original gone before any formal discussion.

Eventually, after a period of negotiation, both the RCN and UNISON recommended the 5% plus lump sum deal. UNISON communicated with its members and said that the offer “would boost pay significantly this year and mean a wage increase next year”. The RCN said that “there comes a point where the other side won’t offer any more”. I detected a different tone in those communications.

Ms Cullen has now had to go back and ask for more but has not specified how much more she needs from a government which will not, according to her own letter to her members, offer any more.  It remains to be seen whether the withdrawal of emergency, intensive and cancer care has any effect on the government and if it increases public sympathy or not and whether the RCN membership will again support strike action in a second ballot which they are obliged to hold by law.

There are two important negotiating points to be drawn from this sad state of affairs.

The first is the test of the realism of a claim. The fact that the claim had to be almost halved to get both sides to the table indicates, to my mind, that it was never a credible claim. Maybe it was an attempt to be “macho” to use the RCN’s own expression but anyone with any experience in negotiation could have told them that the tactical issue with wildly unrealistic proposals is that you have to move back from them a long way to get into a space where bargaining can even begin to take place.  The result is often a loss of face which may account for Ms Cullen’s rather low-key comments to her membership.

Linked to that is the second negotiating point – did the constant repetition in the media of 19% and 5% above inflation start to crystallise an expectation in the minds of the membership of the RCN that this, or something close, might have been achievable?  Did the climbdown from an unrealistic 19% to a negotiated 5% plus lump sum not meet the expectations of the RCN members who had expected a lot more?  Moreover, did they expect a lot more because their leadership failed to manage their expectations about what was achievable in reality and to sell the deal positively as you might think UNISON tried to do?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I can tell you this with considerable confidence: wildly incredible proposals are never met in reality - indeed, they are sometimes not even given the courtesy of a response.  Moreover, if you make a wildly unrealistic proposal and you keep repeating it and offering your justification for it, then you risk the possibility that you and others may believe it is achievable when it manifestly is not and the bump when you fall back to reality is so hard to bear that staying in the realms of fantasy may be preferable.  Managing expectations about the achievability and the realism of a desired outcome is key to successful negotiating – failure to do it can cause a time-consuming and frustrating deadlock.

I am sympathetic to the issues of pay for those who work in the front line of the Health Service – some of whom I know as friends. It is the tactics which I question. If I were to offer advice in addition to what I have noted here about realism and expectation management, it would be to continue the initiative and to use time as a factor in the negotiation – make a proposal which uses time – probably a number of years –  to keep the issues current and to rectify what has no doubt taken years to arrive at where we are now.

David Bannister
More by David Bannister:
Disagreeing with Grace
Just plumb wrong!
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