In the latest instalment of our blog series exploring links between managerial capability, conflict management and productivity, Susan Clews, Chief Executive at Acas, draws on lessons from the frontline of employee relations and conflict resolution to ‘mastermind the perfect manager.’

If Acas was ever invited to appear on ‘Mastermind’, it wouldn’t be difficult to predict what our specialist subject would be. Over the course of almost fifty years, we have taken the statutory duty bestowed on us – to resolve conflict and promote good employment relations – and turned it on its head. We have still got a long way to go, but our advisors see more organisations are becoming receptive to our mantra that ‘prevention is better than cure’.    

In the first blog in this series, Richard Saundry talked about the ‘consistent story’ that has emerged on how to prevent, manage and channel conflict in the right way. This tends to focus on problems – with line manager capability, organisational culture, levels of representation and engagement with HR. This perception of conflict as entirely negative could though narrow our vision.  Yes, of course conflict can be destructive and hurtful, but, as Richard says in a recent Acas policy paper, conflict can also play the role of critical friend, challenging cultures and creating fairer, more progressive workplaces. 

Whether you are managing what Rachel Suff of the CIPD describes as ‘negative conflict’ – such as bullying and harassment – or more creative conflict that helps change things for the better – you need to be especially mindful of three core management skills: managing emotions, managing expectations and managing your own style. 

As the Chief Executive at Acas I listen to the insightful observations of my colleagues on the frontline (Faye Law, Michele Piertney and Sarah Raftery). 

Managing emotions   

Strong emotions can be hard to handle and in the last few months many of us will have been a little more on edge than usual, worrying about how we do our jobs and the health and wellbeing of friends and family. 

Most managers want to look after their staff and boost productivity, but when thinking about when to intervene in potential problems, they need to be mindful of: 

  • Jumping in too soon.  Sarah told me about one employee on the night shift who, finishing ahead of schedule, read the paper rather than start the next task. The manager was so cross he was liable to ‘blow his top’, but wisely decided to leave it till the morning, at which point the employee apologised and a sensible conversation could ensue. 
  • Holding back too long. As Faye reminded me, if a manager leaps in every time there is the hint of a cross word between colleagues, it can nurture a “school teacher, naughty child” dynamic which can easily become entrenched.  

I think we all recognise that too many managers are appointed for their technical rather than their people skills. But being able to show empathy (rather than sympathy) can be taught. We shouldn’t write-off managers because they have skills gaps. 

Managing expectations  

If a manager does get it right and intervenes at the right moment, it can still be tempting to assume that things – in other words, personal relationships! – will just sort themselves out. But managers speak for that dreaded concept of ‘organisational culture’, which basically means acting on your values. So, it is vital that, where appropriate, justice is done and seen to be done. We only have to think of the enlightening campaigns for sexual and racial equality to reinforce this point. 

Rachel says we shouldn’t always fall back on policies and procedures. True, they work best as safety nets that you hope you won’t have to use. If you do have to use them though, our message is to use them in the right way: to uphold your values and the behaviours you want to encourage. 

What have become known as ‘alternative dispute resolution’ processes, like mediation, have proved successful, but haven’t taken off on the large scale many of us would like to see.  I am a great believer in mediation as it tries to save working relationships, but we must do more to convince employers that the investment is worth it. 

Managing your own style 

There is a heck of a lot riding on having line managers with the right skills: they need to promote positive wellbeing, reduce conflict and solve the UK’s productivity problem – and all that before lunch!  

On a more serious note, I do believe that what are often called ‘marginal gains’ can go a long way to solve big issues. As Sir Brendan Barber said when talking at the launch of our ‘productivity levers’, sometimes the ‘human solution to an economic problem’ is staring you in the face. 

For example, the value of face-to-face communication cannot be over-estimated (and, yes, virtual faces are ok). We did our own research on the use of emails and found that they can be very distracting (it takes 64 seconds to recover from every email interruption). Michele has seen lots of examples where just the way an email is drafted, perhaps without a greeting or with the use of CAPITAL letters, can spark conflict. 

Soft management skills take time to develop, but I am sure that the work we continue to do with Richard Saundry, Rachel Suff and other colleagues will eventually make them less of a hard sell and more of a valued must have. 

Susan Clews is Chief Executive of Acas