As part of our blog series exploring links between managerial capability, conflict management and productivity, Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD, highlights the need to invest in people management capability to handle conflict effectively.

In the current health and economic crisis organisations are facing an employment relations challenge like never before. The pandemic is not having an equal impact on every individual, although most employees are facing considerable challenges at work and in their personal lives. The potential for divisiveness and conflict to emerge within teams is considerable.

Even before COVID-19 struck, followed closely by recession and rising unemployment, we knew negative conflict was a significant issue in many UK workplaces. And yet far too few organisations recognise conflict or deal effectively with it. According to a CIPD report on conflict published in January 2020, a quarter of employees (24%) agreed that ‘challenging issues like bullying and harassment were swept under the carpet in my organisation.’ It also found that 15% had experienced bullying in the last three years at work, 4% had been sexually harassed and 8% reported other forms of harassment.

A poor resolution rate

More than half (53%) of employees who had been bullied or harassed did not report the latest incident. Among those who did report the conflict, such as a difficult relationship or inappropriate behaviour, less than half (44%) said it had so far been resolved. Further, individuals were just as likely to be dissatisfied as satisfied with how their organisation handled the conflict.

Our findings show formal processes like grievance procedures continue to dominate employers’ approaches to resolving conflict. However, it’s encouraging that there’s also an openness to using more informal approaches, such as

  • training managers in having ‘difficult conversations’
  • facilitated discussion/troubleshooting by HR
  • mediation.

There will always be situations of conflict where it’s appropriate to use a formal procedure. But it will not necessarily deal with the real problem underlying the conflict, which can mean the procedure can become more important than the issue it seeks to resolve. There is more scope for organisations to develop earlier and more positive ways of resolving conflict between individuals in an informal way, through problem-solving and dialogue.

Line managers play a leading role in conflict

The report highlights the critical importance of line management in the cause and management of conflict: for example, 4 in 10 (40%) of those who had been bullied or harassed said their manager was responsible. Meanwhile, a third (34%) of employers said one of the top barriers to effective conflict management is that managers lack the confidence to challenge inappropriate behaviour.

However, the research also shows that managers who’ve received training can help to stop conflict from occurring and are much better at fostering healthy relationships in their teams. And when conflict does occur, they can help to resolve the issue more quickly and effectively.

More organisations need to invest in people management capability to strengthen the employment relationship and handle conflict effectively. Employers should ensure managers have the confidence to recognise conflict in their team and challenge inappropriate behaviour. The training should cover areas like conflict resolution, mediation and facilitation techniques, and how to have challenging and sensitive conversations with people.

As well as receiving training and ongoing guidance, managers need to understand the behaviours that will help them to manage conflict in the most effective way: we need managers who are open, collaborative and compassionate. They should get to know people in their teams as individuals, and build trust-based relationships. They should be alert to any underlying tension or concerns and tackle conflict head on rather than avoid it. It’s up to senior leaders and HR to ensure that managers are part of the solution and not the problem in managing conflict at work!

The CIPD has published practical guidance for people managers to help them prevent and manage conflict at work.

Rachel Suff is a Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD.