“There’s an invisible red line of what the Greeks are prepared to tolerate in terms of sacrifices and I think we are crossing it,” stated Greek Sociologist Aliki Mouraki last week. His words were in response to growing unrest and concern for the Greek nation who, in spite of their 110 billion Euro bailout by the EU and IMF in 2010, continue to struggle financially with their society now in a fragile state. The antipathy of the Greeks towards their government was demonstrated all too clearly in the physical attacks on government ministers who were pelted with sticks and stones in the streets just before Christmas, as more riots and disturbances broke out in Athens.

Simultaneously in London, shops and property were damaged as the nation’s youth demonstrated against the increased University tuition fees being imposed by the coalition Government. Even the British Royal family were not exempt from the students’ frustrations, as a motorcade in which the Prince of Wales and his wife were travelling, was caught up in the demonstration, their car sustaining damage as it was kicked and a window broken. It was later reported that Royal protection police were moments away from drawing their weapons.

Meanwhile, Ireland struggles under a huge burden of debt, Spain and Portugal’s economies are fragile, and the Germans, themselves once great advocates of the Euro, are making noises about wanting the Deutschmark reinstated. What these events show us is that the immense pressures, both economic and political, affecting the European Union, are causing unrest and dissent. Looked at simplistically, what we are observing first hand is a reaction by European nations to forced change. The relevance to us as ADR professionals is significant. We can learn much from observing nations, societies and businesses struggling to evolve and cope with conflict derived from change. While European governments implement austerity measures and budget cuts to public services, the people of Europe are not happy. If we examine this process a little deeper, what we are seeing is that change, in all its forms, is something of an anathema to the human mindset; hence the conflict and disputes that arise from it. Human beings are by nature creatures of habit. We like our status quos to remain unchanged and when someone, or something, forces change upon us we react – sometimes quietly, sometimes violently but we react nonetheless.

In 2011, many of us will be helping clients cope with conflicts and disputes whose cause is likely to be rooted in change. Change is a perceived threat to many and, as ADR professionals it is part of our job to explain and advise our clients that conflict deriving from change is inevitable. However, it can be managed: the processes, if carefully designed, can actually be empowering for those involved and result in highly positive outcomes. But herein lies an important point: process design is key, as fear of the unknown is a powerful force. In our work, we must coach and train our clients, be they firms or families, to understand that clear concise communication is essential. The benefits of change should be explained and the rationale for change understood. As a chameleon changes colour to match its environment, so businesses must constantly change to match the ever changing economic environment. This may mean upsizing, downsizing, dropping products and launching new ones. The dynamic world in which we live requires us all to evolve and change and, as evolution clearly shows, the species that failed to evolve died out; and no-one wants to be a dinosaur, do they?

As I observe a fragile and tense world coping with change, I would encourage all those who work in ADR to develop skills and understanding in this area. Find creative ways to use negotiation and conflict resolution skills to open up and lead your clients down the paths of change they must travel to survive in uncertain times. As these journeys begin, be aware that resistance is guaranteed. People will express anger, hostility and resentment; but when the position and rationale are clearly explained and understood (achieved in part by ensuring all parties are included in the design process), then even the most fervent objector may eventually back off and quietly recognise that yes, things actually can’t go on as they are. If businesses want to avoid possible law suits, then time spent working with employees now may save millions later. As European austerity measures begin to bite, the people are resentful and hostile, occasionally even becoming violent, as in London or Greece. However, if Governments are open, honest and explain clearly the need for pragmatic policies to reduce debt, then maybe the people will accept that things can’t go on as they are!

by Howard Stern
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Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.