Mitchell’s Musings 8-29-16: Not Persuasive

27 Aug 2016 6:06 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-29-16: Not Persuasive

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

When LERA, the Labor and Employment Relations Association, changed its name from the Industrial Relations Research Association (IRRA), it was attempting to be more modern in its terminology. Perhaps “industrial” suggested only blue-collar sectors such as manufacturing. Moreover, the terms “labor relations” and “industrial relations” tended in the past to mean only union-management relations and not relations in the much larger nonunion sector.

Still, in looking for a new name, the Association did not adopt the contemporary “human resources” terminology. Human resources as a phrase – whatever it might mean to those folks who have those words in their job titles (e.g., VP of Human Resources) – doesn’t suggest a relationship. Steel is a resource. Money is a resource. But you don’t have a relationship with either of those “resources.” In particular, there is no need to be persuasive with regard to steel or money; you use them as you see fit without worrying about how they might feel or react.

It is true that the IRRA, now LERA, developed at a time (the late 1940s) when unions were in a period of ascendency. And it is also true that LERA remains linked to the world of collective bargaining in its structure and interests. However, the idea of a relationship that needed to be studied was always strong. The union sector has in fact two levels of relationships. There is the standard employer/employee relationship with the usual hierarchy of boss/subordinate. But that interpersonal relationship is mediated by the employer-union relationship. Much of the work of the Association was (is) about the complexity of the dual relationships and their interactions.

When the general public thinks about unions, it is often in the context of conflict (strikes). But a good deal of the research of the Association had to do (has to do) with avoiding or reducing conflict. The study of arbitration and mediation, or just case study comparisons between amicable and hostile relationships, are all examples of such research.

Of course, there are situations in which people can simply be ordered to do things. As in the “Charge of the Light Brigade”: …Theirs not to reason why; theirs but to do and die  Bu, then again, the Charge of the Light Brigade did not work out so well. Maybe if someone had asked why, the result would have been better. Maybe if the members of the light brigade had been asked about their thoughts on the likelihood of success, things might have been different. In many cases, and certainly in labor and employment relations, some element of consultation and persuasion can produce better results. Providing some legitimacy or rationale through obtaining a “buy in” of participants can reduce conflict.

Even when conflict arises and third parties are brought in to help, persuasion is an element in the ultimate resolution. Mediators may suggest alternatives or reinterpret positions and outcomes. Arbitrators – even though they ultimately make the decision – try to provide persuasive arguments as to how they arrived at those decisions. Arbitration decisions typically are accompanied by explanations. In those written decisions, they will review what the parties presented and explain their responses. That is, arbitrators will demonstration that they listened, even if they did not agree with the interpretation being proffered. 


Of course, there remain those conflicts that are settled by infliction of economic pain via strikes and lockouts. Persuasion in those cases – as we have been using that word - is less of an issue. But typically, use of such tactics is seen as a last resort if no other means of resolution seems possible.

What brought all this to mind was an observation that there is a tendency nowadays to ignore what is persuasive in situations in which, in the end, there is no option to order someone to do something; no option to inflict enough economic pain to make anyone agree.  As an example, I happened to peruse the opinion section of the website for the UCLA undergraduate student newspaper recently and came across the listing below of four opinion pieces:

Let’s put aside the merits and demerits of the topics of the items. The first one tells somebody what they MUST do or they MUST think. The next two tell somebody what they SHOULD do. And the fourth just expresses an opinion about the subject. Let’s think about those lead-ins.

The use of MUST would surely be a turn-off to anyone who might actually have some authority to – in this case - change transportation policy in Beverly Hills. So the author either doesn’t actually care if policy is changed or not, or doesn’t realize that starting with MUST is likely to be offensive. In fact, nobody MUST do anything or think anything. Who is the author to say otherwise?

SHOULD in the middle two items is a bit softer than MUST. But it’s still pretty directive and a potential turn-off. Before the reader even gets into the argument to be presented, he/she is told what he/she SHOULD think. Why is the reader being told in advance of any rationale what he/she as a voter or a college student SHOULD do?

The fourth item simply gives an opinion and invites you, as the reader, to find out what it is that the author believes. It doesn’t tell you what you should or must do. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether the authors of any of these pieces thought about being persuasive or about what form of presentation might be most persuasive. My experience, however, in teaching undergraduates is that they haven’t had much experience in persuasive policy writing.

But it isn’t just youthful undergraduates nowadays who seem intent on expressing opinions without regard to persuasiveness. My high school class (of 1960) maintains a website whereby members of the class can post whatever they like. It was intended for recollections of the school, updates on careers, personal items, etc. At present, however, it is dominated by a few individuals who post – sometimes in vituperative terms – their opinions about the current presidential election. There are pro-Trump and pro-Clinton views and views that both candidates are terrible. And there are endless back-and-forths refuting each other, sometimes with lengthy essays that others in the class have no interest in reading. Although there have been suggestions by others who look at the website (including suggestions by yours truly) to the offenders that enough is enough, their “debate” continues. And it continues without apparent interest in putting forward positions in ways that will engage rather than offend.

So expressions of opinion without apparent thought of persuasiveness seem to be found at both ends of the age spectrum, undergrads and folks in their seventies. Sadly, the practice is not found only at the extremes of the age distribution. You have only to look at the comment sections on newspaper websites, you find the similar results – presumably mainly reflecting the ages somewhere in between current undergrads and the high school class of 1960. Opinions in the comment sections are also commonly expressed without any apparent interest in persuading readers of their validity. Even the basics of spelling and grammar are absent, despite the ready availability of automatic spellcheckers on computers.

As with the student examples, I have no way of knowing whether the authors of newspaper comments know about, or care about, persuasive presentation. LERA members – by virtue of their field of study – presumably do care since persuasion is an inherent element in labor and employment relations. Perhaps it’s time at some future LERA meeting for a session on the art of persuasion and on why it seems to be becoming a lost art.

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