Conflict at work: Where next?

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I have worked as a line-manager for over 20 years, as a HR Manager for 10 of these, and as a HR Consultant for the last 3 years. Dealing effectively with workplace conflict by responding to staff as ...


Read More Jo Cairns
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There has been a push towards informal interventions and teams regulating behaviour

As the world of business evolves so too will employers' approach to conflict. Here’s a quick resume of how things have changed and how companies will need to respond:

  • Collective disputes: the possibility for constant information updates during talks makes for a complex and constantly-shifting landscape. In this way, conflict reflects the way we live our lives now.
  • Individual conflict: there has been a push towards prevention rather than cure, with the emphasis on informal rather than formal interventions. Despite this, many organisations are still very reactive in their response to tackling conflict. In some instances it has become de-contextualised from a purely workplace setting; for example the use (or misuse) of social media.

Our new research report, Managing individual conflict in the contemporary British workplace, focuses on the second area. The shift from collective bargaining to individualisation of the employment contract has been significant in recent decades. But although employers are very aware of the possibility of employment tribunal claims, the strategic approach to managing conflict often amounts to just following procedures.

This is a great shame. Having a framework that sets out how to handle conflict through a formal procedure is vital. But this should provide a safety net rather than a preferred option. Think of the emotional and economic impact conflict can have on employees and workplaces. If we want to create more competitive and productive workplaces we need to start taking conflict more seriously.

Food for thought

Having a policy is a great place to start but our research shows that there is real room for improvement when it comes to:

  • Line manager confidence. Conflict is not seen as an important management competence and therefore personal confidence in dealing with issues is often low
  • Encouraging alternative methods of resolving conflict. Mediation, for example, is often only considered as a last resort when everything else has failed.
  • The role of HR. With the HR function increasingly centralised or outsourced there is a tendency to formalise even informal approaches to conflict resolution.
  • Better strategies. Businesses have strategies for wellbeing and engagement and measure and review how they are performing. Managing conflict needs to be taken just as seriously.

Where are we heading?

There are two interesting developments to watch out for in individual conflict management in the near future:

  • The role of teams. The employment relations dynamic may have swung as far as it can from the collective to the individual and be on its way back again. Our study on bullying last year suggested that teams might have a key role to play in regulating behaviour and promoting the right values,
  • We need to learn much more about the psychology of how people interact at work. We have published a paper on the role emotional intelligence can play in resolving conflict: The road less travelled? Taking the informal route to conflict resolution. I’d be interested to hear your views.

One final thought. Our research reveals that most small firms don’t really believe that conflict exists at all. This may be because when people work cheek by jowl things get sorted out quickly. But small businesses could have something to teach the rest of us, in terms of replicating a certain kind of spontaneity and sense of perspective.

Brendan Barber is chair of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas)

Comments

I have worked as a line-manager for over 20 years, as a HR Manager for 10 of these, and as a HR Consultant for the last 3 years. Dealing effectively with workplace conflict by responding to staff as individuals and actively involving them in the process rather than a process 'done' to them is a key aspect of managing businesses and organisations in an ever more complex world. Depending on the model used and business culture internal mediation can be constrained by the inter-relationships. External mediation can be very valuable when this is this case.


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