Is your conflict ripe for resolution?

Prolonged conflict can be immensely destructive. To move beyond impasse, negotiators must attempt to change their perceptions.

By — on / Conflict Resolution

In 2012, like many American orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra was in a state of crisis. Failing to attract young fans, it was facing a steady decline in ticket sales. The orchestra’s musicians had received a significant wage increase in 2007—just before the financial crisis devastated the orchestra’s revenues, assets, endowment, and donations. The musicians had made wage concessions in 2009 but rejected a proposed 10% salary cut in 2010.

By mid-2012, the orchestra was reporting $6 million in deficits. Refusing to risk the organization’s long-term viability by drawing on its endowment to cover losses, orchestra president and CEO Michael Henson instead proposed significant cuts to the orchestra’s budget, most notably a 32% reduction in player salaries—from $113,000 to $78,000, on average—the New York Times reports.

The musicians not only rejected the proposal but also refused to make a counterproposal. They disputed the orchestra’s figures and complained that a $50 million renovation of the ensemble’s hall, in progress at the time, reflected poor priorities and mismanagement. With the musicians refusing to negotiate, management locked them out on October 1 and began canceling concerts.

What followed serves as a cautionary tale of how conflict can cause negotiators to risk what matters most to them in the pursuit of illusory goals. Advice from a new book suggests how parties in conflict can move beyond impasse.

The sound of silence
As of October 2012, the Minnesota Orchestra was at a stalemate: The musicians said they wouldn’t negotiate until the lockout was lifted, and the orchestra’s board said it wouldn’t sacrifice leverage by lifting the lockout.

Months of canceled concerts followed. Several prominent orchestra members resigned, moving on to other jobs. In April 2013, the orchestra’s illustrious music director, Osmo Vänskä, informed management that he would be forced to resign in September if the dispute led to the cancellation of the orchestra’s highly anticipated concerts at New York’s Carnegie Hall, scheduled for November 2 and 3. Vänskä had been widely praised for leading the Minnesota Orchestra to become one of the best in the nation over the course of his nine-year tenure.

In May, the orchestra officially canceled the remainder of its 2012–13 season. Observers began speculating whether the 110-year-old organization would become the first U.S. orchestra of its stature to permanently disband because of fiscal problems.

In July, with the musicians still refusing to negotiate, the two sides agreed to allow former senator George Mitchell to tackle their conflict. Mitchell’s critical first task: Get the parties back to the negotiating table. But Mitchell, the mediator who had brokered peace in Northern Ireland, had difficulty doing even that. Each side rejected the other’s offer regarding the terms of an official negotiating period. The stalemate lingered.

An enduring pause
On September 26, with the clock ticking toward the anticipated October 1 cancellation of the Carnegie Hall concerts, Vänskä’s resignation, and the start of the 2013–14 season, Minnesota community groups and foundations came together to briskly raise $1.68 million and offered each of the 84 musicians a onetime $20,000 bonus to help offset the proposed pay cut. The net result would equal an average salary of $104,500, a 17.5% reduction (as compared with management’s original proposed 32% cut), with at least 10 weeks of paid vacation per year.

Dancing Around the Heart of the Matter

In early October of this year, another prominent U.S. performing arts organization resolved its own lingering labor dispute.

Management of the San Francisco Ballet and its dancers’ union, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), began negotiating the terms of a new contract for the dancers in March. Over the next seven months, they met 17 times, yet failed to reach agreement, Backstage magazine reports. The dancers’ existing contract lapsed on June 30.

Management sought to have dancers’ wages frozen for at least the first year of the three-year contract. The union insisted on a salary increase, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, it cited the high cost of living in San Francisco. Second, the AGMA was seeking to use the ballet company as a test case in reversing a long-standing norm in the ballet world: the fact that the orchestra musicians who accompany the ballet generally earn higher salaries than the dancers themselves, despite working significantly fewer weeks per year and essentially being support personnel.

“Orchestras have always been paid better than opera singers or ballet dancers, and we think that’s wrong,” AGMA executive director Alan Gordon told Backstage. “People don’t go to the ballet to hear the orchestra. They go to the ballet to see the dancers.” The dispute was not about money, said Gordon, but about dancers’ desire for management to show them greater respect by valuing their work above that of the orchestra musicians.

In September, with the ballet’s October New York tour looming, the ballet company and the AGMA began meeting with a federal mediator. On October 3, the two sides confirmed that the dancers had voted to accept the ballet’s best and final offer. The terms were not disclosed, but Gordon said that management had begun to address the salary gap between the musicians and the dancers.

The conflict and its resolution highlight the fact that disputes that appear to be primarily about money are often rooted in one side’s belief that it is being treated unfairly or being disrespected. Though financial concessions may be required to alleviate such concerns, listening closely to the party’s complaints and developing creative ways to address them

On September 28, the musicians formally rejected the board’s offer, saying that the proposed salary reduction would make it difficult for the orchestra to attract top talent. The musicians also expressed the belief that Vänskä would not follow through on his threat to resign if the Carnegie Hall concerts were canceled.

They were wrong. The concerts were canceled, and on October 1, Vänskä resigned, saying in a statement that it was “a very sad day” for him. Aaron Jay Kernis, the director of the orchestra’s Composer Institute, resigned the same day, writing in a letter to the orchestra’s board: “I have personally never seen two sides that show such unwillingness to sit down together” and negotiate.

The chair of the orchestra’s board said that management would pause for a period of months to weigh the ensemble’s future. Speaking to the media, many observers expressed disbelief that the parties had not made a more concerted effort to come to agreement and concern that the orchestra would have difficulty attracting a high-quality replacement for Vänskä because of its state of disarray.

Mistakes made
The list of what went wrong in Minneapolis is long. Management angered the musicians by refusing to accept responsibility for its role in the orchestra’s fiscal crisis. The musicians allowed mistrust and animosity to fester by refusing to negotiate with management.

As the lockout dragged on, each side escalated its commitment to the conflict through public statements and provocative moves. Perhaps most critically, the parties framed their dispute as a fight over a single issue—salary—and ignored opportunities to work together to find ways to ensure the orchestra’s long-term financial and artistic health.

Overconfidence on both sides appeared to lead each side to believe it had the stronger case—and to underestimate the other party’s willingness to stand firm. They also may have failed to take Vänskä’s threat seriously and undervalued the chilling effect his departure could have on the orchestra.

When conflicts grow ripe
The dispute was hardly unprecedented, even for Minnesota’s Twin Cities. During its own 2012–13 season, the 34 members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra endured a six-month lockout. In the end, the players accepted a 19% salary cut, having concluded that there was no other way to save the ensemble.

Why did the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra musicians accept a deep pay cut when the Minnesota Orchestra players would not? In a chapter titled “To Negotiate or Not?” in his new book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse examines situations in which disputants have broken off contact with each other—and what brings them back together. He notes that some of the most intractable conflicts in recent human history, including those between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and between white and black South Africans, raged for many years, only to be resolved when the time was said to be ripe.

A school of thought known as “ripeness theory” considers what makes conflicts ripe for resolution. Conflicts become ripe in the presence of two conditions, according to ripeness theorist I. William
Zartman: (1) the parties are experiencing a mutually harmful stalemate, and (2) both sides see a way out of the conflict. For parties to move beyond impasse, they must change the way they view the conflict. This might mean looking differently at potential costs, benefits, alternatives, priorities, and implementation issues, according to Salacuse.

Considered through this lens, the parties in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra dispute were able to change their perspective on the conflict. Critically, they reached a point where they viewed negotiating a settlement, even a disappointing one, as a more preferable and viable alternative to impasse. By contrast, the Minnesota Orchestra disputants have not yet reached that point.

A success story from Detroit

The newly bankrupt city of Detroit might seem an unlikely role model for Minneapolis and its symphony. But the story of how the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) reinvented itself in the face of a fiscal crisis and work stoppage suggests a possible way forward for the Minnesota Orchestra.

Facing annual deficits of $3 million and $54 million in debt from a new music center, DSO management took a firm line on the need for player salary reductions in 2010. Following a six-month strike, the musicians eventually accepted a hefty salary cut—from $104,650 to $79,000, on average—in exchange for continued health insurance, an improved pension plan, and opportunities for additional paid teaching and chamber music work.

After reaching agreement, the management and players came together to discuss what had gone wrong and how they might do better, writes Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. The deep distrust that motivated the strike “is being replaced by a culture of mutual respect among the musicians, management, and board,” according to Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press.
Management even drew on the orchestra’s near-death experience to launch a more sustainable business model. During the strike, the musicians held 19 concerts of their own in churches and schools throughout the Detroit area. After the strike, taking note of the concerts’ popularity, the symphony launched a Neighborhood Series of suburban subscription concerts. It now holds 25% of its classical performances outside its downtown concert hall, an innovative change that is attracting a new, younger audience to classical music in Detroit.

Despite the reductions in player salaries, the DSO is reportedly having no trouble filling its ranks with A-list musicians. And in May 2013, the symphony performed two well-received concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Break through a stalemate
Ripeness theory suggests at least four pieces of advice that can help you move your conflict beyond impasse, writes Salacuse:

1. Examine perceptions. How each party perceives the conflict is a critical factor in that party’s decision to negotiate. For this reason, you should continually assess whether your perceptions and those of the other party agree with reality. That might mean jointly commissioning an impartial financial analysis, for example, or providing direct evidence to alleviate the other party’s concerns.

2. Recognize that perceptions change. The perceptions you hold about a conflict may change over time as a result of your experiences dealing with the conflict and with the other party. Therefore, you’d be wise to view your long-standing disputes as being in flux rather than permanently intractable. For example, a couple that endures a rancorous divorce might grow more cooperative over time for the sake of their children.

3. Maintain contact. It pays to remain in contact with the other party in your dispute, according to Salacuse. Doing so may allow you to encourage them to accept the following three realities: (1) your existing approaches to the conflict are not working; (2) the status quo is too costly for both sides to maintain; and (3) the prospect of negotiating does at least offer some hope of improvement. If the Minnesota Orchestra players had recognized the importance of meeting regularly with management, they may have been able to slowly work through their differences.

4. Capitalize on leadership changes. The departure of a divisive leader on one side of the conflict can offer new hope for resolution. Take advantage of such changes by advancing a new offer to negotiate or making a new settlement proposal, working through a mediator or other third party if necessary. In addition, if you believe the other side is being led by an obstructionist, you may be able to negotiate for a replacement who is more open to collaboration.