In the first of a series of blogs exploring links between managerial capability, management of conflict and organisational productivity, Professor Richard Saundry examines what the research to date tells us about building managerial capability to effectively manage conflict and create more productive workplaces.

When I first started researching conflict in UK workplaces in 2008, a consistent story emerged from  HR practitioners and union representatives – the main barrier to early and effective conflict resolution was a lack of skills and confidence among frontline managers. Recruited on the basis of their technical know-how, given little training in people management skills and even less support from senior managers more interested in hitting short-term targets than employee engagement, managers tended to avoid difficult conversations and had little idea how to respond when things inevitably escalated. This wasn’t exactly surprising – around the same time, there was a slew of academic studies and surveys of CIPD members that painted a near identical picture. Such was the consensus over this issue I certainly assumed that it would be addressed – an aspiration reinforced by optimistic accounts from organisations of high profile and substantial investment in innovative leadership development programmes.

However, more than a decade later, has anything really changed? The most recent CIPD research on conflict management not only suggests that managers still lack the necessary skills to handle difficult personnel issues but also that relevant training has, if anything, stalled over the last five years. Perhaps the most in-depth survey of workplace conflict in contemporary British workplaces (to date), on behalf of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), again found little improvement, concluding that:

‘…the lack of competence and confidence of frontline managers in addressing conflict remains a fundamental problem. Managers in larger organisations are reluctant to pursue informal routes to resolution and use the rigid application of procedure as a shield against internal criticism and censure.’

So, we know that there is a problem with the ‘conflict competence’ of line managers. In fact there is also evidence that this extends to senior leaders and even to HR practitioners. In 2015, the CIPD concluded that ‘many HR managers lack confidence in developing informal approaches to managing conflict and continue to be nervous about departing from grievance procedures’. Moreover, we also know that the quality of management matters – Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist has argued that there is a clear and substantial connection between the quality of management practices and processes and productivity. Even the UK government recognises that we have a problem with managerial capability, admitting in its Industrial Strategy that our managers are, on average, less proficient than many competitors’.

It is less clear what types of skills are critical in solving the productivity puzzle. Interestingly, research conducted as part of the World Management Survey (WMS) by Nick Bloom, Rafaella Sadun and John Van Reenen points towards HRM finding a clear link between productivity and ‘…performance systems that rewarded and advanced great employees and helped underperformers turn around or move on’. We also know from research in the UK that among SMEs, investment in developing HR practices generates positive returns. It can certainly be argued that managing performance effectively is key to preventing and containing workplace conflict. Indeed, Acas research has found that the clumsy management of poor performance was a major source of conflict in UK workplaces. We also know that as line managers are put under increasing pressure to drive efficiency, often with less direct support from HR, these challenges are intensifying, making it more likely that managers will find themselves having  ‘difficult conversations’ with their staff

Therefore, we know that there is a problem with managerial capability and that this is at least part of the explanation for stubbornly low productivity in UK workplaces. The evidence also seems to suggest that the key competences that we need to target revolve around the management of people and particularly conflict. However, this leads us to the final difficult question: if we have been aware about this issue for so long, why has this not been addressed. While we don’t know the answer, I would argue that there are two key barriers: First, organisations have tended to focus on developing leadership, while neglecting the core relational skills needed to just be effective managers. Second, we also know that managers tend to exaggerate their own performance and also underestimate the potential benefits of training. Therefore, giving managers what are perceived to be basic skills is a ‘hard sell’.

This ‘sell’ is made even more difficult because we simply have very little robust quantitative evidence that management training in general and the development of conflict competence has a demonstrable impact on the bottom line. This is where the ‘Skilled Managers – Productive Workplaces’ research project comes in – over the next two years, a team led by Professor Paul Latreille of the University of Sheffield will be measuring the impact of developing core conflict management skills among UK managers. In parallel, through the PrOPEL hub, academics involved in a range of innovative research projects will be seeking to work closely with a range of stakeholders to support improvements in productivity through enhanced workplace practice and employee engagement.

As part of this, this blog is the first of a series, designed to stimulate debate about the links between managerial capability, the management of conflict and organisational productivity. In the weeks and months to come we will be hearing from a wide range of academics, policy-makers and HR experts providing their insights, helping us to develop a much more informed view of the steps we need to take to build managerial capability and create more productive workplaces.