In the latest in our blog series exploring links between conflict management and productivity, Professor Paul Latreille from the University of Sheffield, explores lessons from the USA in taking more innovative, pro-active and strategic approaches to conflict management.

Conflict at work is costly.  According to the CIPD, around one in three UK employees experience workplace conflict each year. Of those, more than half suffer from stress, anxiety and depression, and 40% report reduced motivation and commitment, with self-evident effects on the UK’s perennial productivity problem. The associated cost to the economy has been estimated at £34 billion – almost the same as a 2-month national lockdown under COVID. You would think that’d make dealing with conflict a strategic priority. However, while there’s evidence that mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practices are being used, organisations adopting more systemic approaches to conflict are still very much the exception, despite longstanding calls for conflict to be seen as a strategic imperative, rather than simply a transactional issue.

More innovative, pro-active and strategic approaches have however gained greater traction in the USA, with around 30% of the leading Fortune 1000 companies including Coca Cola, General Electric and Prudential having adopted a ‘conflict management system’ for dealing with workplace conflict. A smaller number have gone further still in establishing more sophisticated ‘integrated conflict management systems’ (ICMSs). Key features of ICMSs include:

  • Comprehensive coverage of all workers and issues
  • A range of (flexible) rights-based (i.e. disciplinary and grievance procedures) and interest-based (i.e. mediation) options/processes
  • Multiple access points and routes
  • A ‘conflict competent’ culture in which differences and concerns can be voiced, uncovered and addressed.
  • Championing by senior leaders and investment in training and awareness-raising

Within such systems, (line) managers play a critical role in which, according to Jennifer Lynch, they’re “expected to prevent, manage, contain and resolve all conflict at the earliest time and lowest level possible”. This reflects the wider devolution of responsibility for people management from HR to the line. But importantly, it acknowledges the importance of rewarding and recognising this role but also providing managers with the skills needed to resolve conflict. It is important that those skills – which might include listening, questioning, reframing, negotiating – can’t be assumed, but that they can be developed, for example through training and coaching.

Given the importance of ‘conflict competence’, it is interesting that while the USA appears to be streets ahead of its competitors in the development of ICMSs, findings from the World Management Survey suggest it also comfortably tops the global league table in terms of management quality. In contrast, we saw in the first blog in this series that in the UK, despite a growing consensus among HR professionals that conflict competence is a serious problem, there’s little convincing evidence that organisations are currently addressing this problem.

In some ways, the unique institutional context of the USA means that we have to be cautious about drawing direct parallels with the UK, but are there any lessons that we can learn? This will be addressed in a forthcoming PrOPEL masterclass led by Professor Ariel Avgar (Cornell University) and Professor Ryan Lamare. Perhaps a realistic option for all organisations is to try to generate some of the benefits of ICMSs by making more modest – but still significant – changes that reflect and focus on the pivotal role of (line) managers in conflict management, mirroring some of the relevant support structures noted above.

So, what might those include?

  1. Include demonstrable inter-personal and people management skills and competencies – alongside technical expertise – in managerial recruitment and promotion decisions.
  2. Train existing and aspiring managers in core mediative skills to equip them to deal with issues at an early stage, enhancing their competence in doing so, and also – crucially – their confidence.
  3. Make managers’ effectiveness in dealing with conflict and in fostering more positive working relationships with those they manage key indicators for which they’re accountable via performance, reward and recognition processes.

Such changes will be more effective if other supporting structures are added – critically in relation to senior leadership championing (and perhaps coaching) and incorporating conflict as a central element of an organisation’s HR strategy. But given the well-established perception of a managerial skills deficit as noted above, these steps could be instrumental in delivering measurable performance improvements.

Of course, good evidence on that question – ideally using treatment and control groups to unpick causal effects – would help persuade organisations of the payoff to investing in such skills for their managers. And that’s what our ESRC-funded project and associated training intervention – Skilled Managers – Productive Workplaces sets out to examine.  If you are interested in participating in this innovative research project and developing the confidence and capability of your managers, we’d love to hear from you.