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Time to Get Serious about Managing Conflict

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Is conflict management a priority in your organization? Find out how to build the capacity to better manage conflict at work.

According to the CIPD’s most recent research more than one in three of us experienced conflict at work in the last year, that’s more than 11 million workers. This has negative implications both for the wellbeing of employees and also for the success of their organisations. Despite this, as we argue in the latest edition of Managing Employment Relations (recently published this week by Kogan Page), many organisations in the UK do not see the management of conflict as a strategic priority. In this blog we argue that if organisations are serious about creating ‘good work’ and solving the UK’s productivity puzzle, they need to rediscover the employment relationship and rebuild conflict management capacity.

Conflict – the scale of the problem

Conflict at work takes a wide variety of forms, from minor disagreements between colleagues to disciplinary issues and cases of bullying and harassment. While different views and perspectives can be healthy and enhance creativity, if allowed to escalate, conflict can have profound consequences for those involved. CIPD data shows that nearly half of all employees involved in conflict suffer stress and more than one-fifth report being depressed. Conflict also has a negative impact on the bottom line. Four in ten employees involved in workplace conflict report reduced motivation or commitment and nearly one in five cite a drop in productivity. Although the costs of conflict are poorly understood, it has been estimated that employees spend an average of 1.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, an annual loss of 370 million days.

Just a day-to-day issue?

Despite the potential impact of workplace conflict, the reality in many organisations is that it is simply not seen as strategically important. In Managing Employment Relations we discuss our own research, which shows that even HR practitioners see conflict as a transactional and day-to-day activity. The lack of value placed on managing conflict is also reflected in HR structures in which employment relations’ expertise is separated out from the work of strategic business partners. As a result, responses to conflict are slow and opportunities to resolve problems before they spiral are lost.

There are a number of reasons why conflict management is pushed down the organizational agenda:

  • Employers find it hard to admit that they have a problem with conflict, which is too often seen as evidence of failure and dysfunction.
  • Effective conflict management is difficult to measure and often goes unseen. A ‘conflict competent’ manager will try to resolve issues at an early stage and through informal conversation and discussion, often behind closed doors
  • Managers are generally recruited, selected and promoted on the basis of their technical expertise rather than their ability to manage people. Thus, they are more concerned with short-term KPIs than the longer-term benefits of having an engaged team

Line managers – the problem and the solution?

This last point is particularly important - as we argue throughout Managing Employment Relations, line managers play a critical role in shaping experiences of work and employee engagement. The devolution of HR, coupled with declining employee representation, means that most employees have little choice but to go to their line manager if they have a problem at work. At the same time, their manager or supervisor are most likely to be the cause of the conflict in the first place.

Most of the evidence suggests that many managers lack the confidence to address and resolve difficult issues with and between their team members. More broadly, the UK government admits that ‘our managers are, on average, less proficient than many competitors’. Data gathered over the last 15 years through the World Management Survey provides compelling evidence that poor management is one explanation for the UK’s ‘long tail’ of low productivity firms. Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has argued that skilled managers with the ability to manage conflict effectively are key to workplace productivity.

Hope for the future?

There are some tentative signs that some organizations are increasingly building the capacity to manage conflict more effectively. The use of alternative methods like workplace mediation seems to be on the rise while more employers are adopting innovative approaches to conflict management. However, these inventive and original practices remain the exception rather than the rule and our own research points to the continued dominance of formalised and compliance-based approaches to workplace conflict.

A mixed picture also emerges in relation to the conflict competence of line managers. The CIPD report ‘Managing Conflict In the Modern Workplace’ found that  managers were generally positive about their own ability to intervene early to resolve conflict through informal discussion. However, one third of those experiencing conflict claimed that the intervention of their manager actually made matters worse while most employees did not believe that their line manager helped to resolve their conflict either quickly or effectively. Moreover, just four out of every ten managers have been trained in people management skills by their employer. Perhaps more worryingly, the provision in the key area of ‘difficult conversations’ has fallen over the last five years. 

Effective conflict management – the key to good work

In the last five years, we have heard growing calls to put ‘good work’ at the centre of the political agenda in order to boost employee wellbeing and address the perennial problem of low productivity. We believe that the employment relationship is the main building block of ‘good work’ and therefore its effective management is more important than ever. This means developing the capacity to resolve difficult issues when they do arise by:

i) making conflict management a key strategic priority

ii) building people skills into recruitment and development processes and training all managers to address and resolve conflict

iii) developing KPIs or performance objectives for managers that reflect people-related outcomes such as engagement

iv) reshaping disciplinary and grievance procedures to emphasize resolution

v) investing time and resources in developing high-trust relationships between managers, HR practitioners and employee representatives

vi) exploring the potential of alternative forms of dispute resolution such as workplace mediation