Informal Conflict Resolution – Lessons from the Opera

Posted in : HR Updates on 24 March 2016
Joanne Kane
Issues covered:

Recently, the English National Opera announced a settlement with its chorus over a proposed new employment contract. Just in time to avoid a novel form of industrial action - the refusal of the chorus to sing, all the way through the first act of the opera Akhnaten at the London Coliseum!

So how did the ENO and its chorus reach a negotiated settlement? And are there any lessons for negotiating informal resolutions in an employee relations setting? In the second of her articles on workplace conflict Joanne Kane, HR Director at Headstogether Consulting, takes a look.

The background to the dispute is that the ENO had just taken a £5 million subsidy cut from its main funder, the Arts Council, and needed to move the 44 strong chorus from a 12-month to a 9-month contact. This would match its core season of productions at the London Coliseum, which in future will run from August to April. In addition, ENO management wanted to cut 4 jobs. This proposal was not well received and in late February the chorus voted in favour of the eye-catching one act strike.

So how did the parties negotiate a settlement in just 3 weeks, and what can we learn?

1. Handle conflict sooner rather than later. Informally if at all possible.

In the case of the ENO, industrial action in the form of a sabotaged or cancelled performance would have done massive damage to the company’s international reputation, and upped the “emotional side” of the conflict to a level that might have been hard to come back from. Equally in employee relations cases there are significant costs both financially, and in terms of relationships, when a dispute goes down a formal route. 

Never underestimate the costs of a formal process

The costs in terms of management time can be considerable. Below is the average number of days it takes to manage a disciplinary case or a grievance case, once it’s gone into a formal process, but before it reaches an employment tribunal.


Disciplinary Case

Grievance Case

Line Management Time

7.8 days

6.8 days

HR Staff Time

10.2 days

7.6 days




(CIPD Conflict Management Survey 2011)



It goes without saying that once a case reaches an employment tribunal the costs can be many times higher, and to a large extent will move outside the control of HR or line management.

Outcome doesn’t equal resolution

A formal process can appear to have certain advantages. First of all, it’s a process, and it will have a definite outcome. But take for example an employee who raises a grievance against a colleague, it’s upheld and a sanction is applied. That’s a win/lose scenario which can rarely, if ever, resolve the true causes of a conflict even if there’s no appeal.

The process itself can be damaging

And in the scenario above, the parties will typically be interviewed to state their respective cases. But this is an inherently adversarial process, in which the gloves are off. It can further entrench positions and cause individuals to “off-load”, which in itself can be tremendously damaging to relationships.

2. Start by analysing the true nature of the conflict. What is it really about?

Conflict typically falls into one (or more) of these 3 categories: 

  • Disagreement about the purpose or objectives of an organisation, team, or project;
  • Differences over the methods or processes for reaching those objectives; or
  • Conflict over culture or values

Purpose or objectives

Change driven by external forces is often a key driver of conflict. In the case of ENO, the financial pressures were openly acknowledged. Crucially, the central objective of preserving the existence of the opera company was identified as an agreed objective. A representative of the chorus confirmed:

 "We are absolutely committed to working with them (ENO management) to find substantial savings.”

The method for reaching the objective

An agreed objective is a key starting point. Once that’s been established, efforts can be focused, jointly, on how to find an agreed method. All of a sudden the parties are (possibly to some small extent) working together.

Culture and values

The most interesting aspect of this case is that there was little or no acknowledgement from either side, at least publicly, that this might be a conflict about cultural issues or values. But just look at the language that was used in the public statements and consider what it tells us about the factors at play. First of all, statements made by a member of the chorus and one of its supporters.

"...this chorus has not been created, it has evolved over time. We know each other, we trust each other, we have a unique combination of voices...”

 “ cannot rip the heart out of an already wounded company and expect it to somehow provide successful productions...”

And now, contrast that with statements issued by ENO management.

“Without a fundamental shift in our business plan, and a move towards seasonal contracts, we put the future of the company at grave risk of bankruptcy.”

“ENO is a solvent company and will remain that way.”

So on the one hand unique voices, wounded hearts and broken trust. On the other, business plans and solvency. That analysis might be a bit glib, when you’re trying to resolve a conflict never underestimate the cultural factors. They can be as important, if not more important to individuals than financial outcomes. And when analysing the conflict, don’t overlook the cultural signals. There had already been mutterings of discontent at ENO after the new management began staging “low brow” but financially lucrative musicals, that some saw as undermining the company’s artistic integrity. 

3. Essential elements of resolution. It’s not a game of winner takes all.

The key advantage of informal resolution is that it is voluntary and almost by definition is not a win/lose. As the ENO settlement shows, there’s almost always some combination of the following key elements.

Both sides compromise, agreeing to “split the difference”

The chorus contract is changing from 12 months to 9 months, as the ENO management had proposed, although this is not taking effect until August 2017.

Both sides collaborate, thinking creatively to create a win/win – the “holy grail” of conflict resolution

Over the remaining 3 months, May to July, management will work with the chorus to “maximise opportunities for additional work” on outreach projects outside the ENO’s London base. This will provide additional pay for members of the chorus, and is in line with making opera accessible to the broadest possible audience, a key element of the ENO’s mission.

One side acquiesces

Giving way on a particular point can be a tactical necessity and the chorus agreed to the reduction in numbers from 44 to 40, with effect from August 2016. The show must go on!
In subsequent articles Joanne will focus on what happens when informal resolution isn’t possible. What are the options, common tactics, and likely outcomes?

This article is correct at 24/03/2016

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Joanne Kane

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