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Street smarts in action

WS talks to labor leader Amy Dean

by on
in Compensation and Benefits,Human Resources

San Jose, Calif., has the highest minimum wage in the United States, thanks in large part to Amy Dean. At age 36, Dean is the dynamo who combines intelligence and people smarts to run the South Bay office of the AFL-CIO in San Jose. Dean spoke with us about her approach to negotiation and diplomacy in her rough-and-tumble world.

WS: How do you bring opposing sides together?

Dean: You have to assume people don’t have a bad motivation from the start. That may be hard to do if you’re up against an adversary and you think the worst of him. I’m not naïve. I know people will fight for their side and sometimes act up. But I’d rather give people the benefit of the doubt and see their nasty or inappropriate behavior as a sign of fear or insecurity.

WS: Does that make it easier for you to accept?

Dean: Yes, because I don’t take it personally. I can move past their behavior and focus on the issue at hand.

WS: How do you prepare to negotiate?

Dean: First, I figure out what my desired outcomes are. I want to be very clear about what I need to achieve from the outset. If I’m not sure, then I don’t want to be figuring that out when I’m in the midst of a heated negotiation.

WS: When you hit resistance, such as a negotiator who refuses to give an inch, how do you respond?

Dean: I try to step back and analyze the situation. I find that stalemates can result when I don’t do a good job anticipating certain outcomes. If people have expectations that you didn’t expect or external threats that you didn’t anticipate, the result can be trouble.

WS: What’s an example of an external threat?

Dean: The most common one is dealing with others who are threatened by the change that you want.

WS: So how do you overcome that?

Dean: It’s a matter of listening and not hammering at my point relentlessly. In any negotiation, people have to come away believing that the process was fair, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted. The way you do that is by ensuring that there’s collaboration. But real collaboration. If you peel it back, collaboration is often a code word for tyranny of the positive—this attitude of “We’re all happy and let’s make it better.” No one can disagree. What constitutes genuine collaboration is when a full range of interests come to the table. That’s when others buy into change.

WS: When you’re brainstorming with your staff or other labor leaders, how do you ensure effective collaboration?

Dean: There are three steps. First, I ask people to put their issues out on the table. I’ll ask, “What do we want to achieve?” Then I’ll ask them to look ahead and use their imagination. I may ask, “What does that mean we look like one or five years from now?” Once I get some answers, I’ll conclude by asking, “What do we need to do to get there?” That’s when we start lining up the actions we need to take.

WS: Are you ever intimidated by older, more aggressive negotiators?

Dean: It’s hard to be intimidated if I think tactically. That means always having your facts prepared before you go into a meeting. I never enter the room armed with just anecdotal data. I anticipate every single argument that may come up.

WS: Do you always succeed?

Dean: No, but this helps me understand others’ expectations better. And once you know that, you can move a whole bunch of people to action.

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