The Relationship-by-Objectives (RBO) process and its potential in fractured workplaces in fractured societies

28 October 2021

Work is central to how people meet not only their material but many of their social needs in modern life. Workplaces bring people together people in complex systems of conflict and cooperation. Employment relationships carry inherent conflict, but at the same time demand cooperative endeavour if the organisations in which they are enshrined are to deliver to their purpose, and as a consequence deliver to all who work in them, invest in them, and rely on them for what they do. Within even relatively stable wealthy nations differences may exist over how a society should be structured and the place of businesses within it; the creation and distribution of wealth; pay system design; work methods; information flows; authority systems; management policies and practices; and how people treat each other on an everyday basis. In societies deeply fractured by identity and class conflicts the challenges of regulating or resolving such differences are intensified.

In modern labour relations dispensations, there has been a great deal of progress in the design of conflict management systems in terms of individual and collective rights. Issues of free association, trade union recognition, access to workplaces, rights of representation, collective bargaining, procedural justice are well entrenched. But in some situations, there is a breakdown in relations that is beyond the reach of such systems, where levels of interpersonal distrust and hostility threaten an organization’s capacity to function. Such breakdowns may occur at many levels: within senior management, within operational departments, between shop stewards and managers.

The RBO process was developed by the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) specifically for interventions in deeply conflicted organizations. The first RBO in South Africa was conducted at Johnson Tiles in 1986 with a few local mediators under the mentorship of two experienced FMCS mediators. Within a few years, more RBOs had been conducted in SA than in the USA. Notable interventions have been conducted at Mercedes Benz, VWSA, Ford, General Motors, Tenneco, Coca Cola, SA Breweries, Portnet, various universities, parastatals. RBOs continue to be conducted, indeed Conflict Dynamics has worked with many key private and public sector organisations requesting RBOs. It is notable that these days requests are made specifically for RBOs, indicating that the term and the process have gained currency in South African labour relations.

During the struggle years, these interventions often involved militant trade unions deeply committed to the overthrow of the apartheid government and managements struggling to find direction in a context of calls for disinvestment, sanctions, and political transformation. Under democracy workplaces simply in their function of drawing people together across identity groups have been recognised as having potential in the wider project of national reconciliation: to help people manage their way through difficult organizational and societal transformation processes. They might take slightly different formats but in essence, they are usually structured around a simple guiding question generated to keep the parties' proposal rather than grievance driven; future-oriented without denying the past; and to move them beyond ‘hunting’ one another into pragmatic behavioural change. The inherent conflict in the employment relationship is not denied or ignored, but the emphasis is on how people treat one another on a daily basis, how they might build more constructive working relationships, and redesign systems giving rise to feelings of injustice and distrust. Matters for collective bargaining and individual disciplinary matters for which there are existing forums and procedures should be dealt with in those mechanisms.

Join us for the Relationships-By-Objectives Webinar on 19 November 2021. To find out more click HERE

- Mark Anstey