Conflict at work – make managers part of the solution, not the problem

Most of us spend a large portion of our waking hours at work, and so the quality of the working environment has a significant impact on our well-being. A supportive culture with positive relationships can greatly enhance our experience of work; conflict can seriously undermine it. Not all conflict is necessarily negative, but even a minor disagreement between people can fester and escalate, if it’s not addressed at the earliest opportunity.

Negative conflict at work also seriously weakens people’s performance and productivity. It is stressful and time-consuming for all concerned and takes focus away from delivering on objectives and organisational priorities.

New CIPD research shows that conflict is very much a part of organisational life, and a common occurrence at work according to a significant proportion of both employees (26%) and employers (20%). Our survey of employees found that just over a third (35%) had experienced some form of interpersonal conflict, either an isolated dispute or ongoing difficult relationship, over the past year. Around one in seven (15%) reported experience of bullying in the past three years.


People managers: in the front line

Managers are typically at the forefront of dealing with conflict, as well as sometimes playing a leading role in it, according to our research. For example, among those employees who had experienced bullying or harassment over the past three years, most were likely to blame their manager or supervisor for the inappropriate behaviour (40% of employees).

When asked how effective their manager was in dealing with the conflict they experienced, a third (32%) who had experienced conflict said their manager had made the situation worse.


Managing people is a big, important job

Over the past decade or more, the trend has been to devolve responsibility for people management activities to line managers. The accompanying trend for the HR function to take on a more ‘strategic’ focus means there’s a risk managers may be isolated as they assume day-to-day responsibility for managing conflict. This view is reflected in our research, which shows that managers tend to be most confident about the technical aspects of their role, such as meeting deadlines and managing projects compared with the ‘people’ aspects, such as managing conflict and holding ‘difficult’ conversations.

Managing people is a demanding job and typically comes with several important responsibilities such as implementing people policies, managing performance and, of course, managing conflict. Carrying out any of these activities on top of an operational role can be challenging. If a manager hasn’t been trained to be knowledgeable and competent, and doesn’t receive ongoing support and guidance from HR, the task could be very daunting. Relationships at work can be complex, and a manager could be faced with a few difficult situations to tackle that are multi-faceted. People professionals need to be on hand to offer managers their expertise and advice where needed.


Encouraging the right behaviours

Managers have a defining influence on the working environment and set the tone for expectations around dignity and respect. HR needs to make sure that every manager in the organisation leads by example and treats each team member with the same importance, showing no hint of favouristism. Managers need to role-model the positive values of the organisation and demonstrate a sound understanding of its diversity and inclusion policies. They will then be able to create an inclusive and healthy culture in their team. It’s HR’s responsibility to ensure that every manager has a sound knowledge of the organisation’s people management policies, including those dealing with equality and diversity, dignity and respect, bullying and harassment, dispute resolution and mediation.

We know from other research at the CIPD that ‘management style’ is the second main cause of stress for people at work. We need managers who are open, collaborative and compassionate. HR should encourage a competency-based approach to management development, and prioritise key behaviours such as a participatory approach, integrity and empathy. It is these competencies that will set managers up to handle conflict sensitively and effectively.

Our research shows that many shy away from personal issues, but managers should get to know people in their teams and understand they have a home life that can impact on their behaviour at work. Managers should be encouraged to hold regular one-to-ones with their direct reports and build trust-based relationships – they will then be in a much better position to pick up on any underlying concerns or conflict in their team.


Informal resolution: setting up managers to succeed

There’s a tendency for organisations, and the people profession, to be compliance-focused and rely on the perceived safety of formal procedures to resolve conflict. This is even truer of people managers who can often lack the confidence to make a judgement call in a complicated conflict situation. It’s vital that employers, and people professionals, invest in the skills and competence of managers so that they are not afraid of tackling conflict head on and encouraging informal, positive routes to resolution.

Conflict between individuals is best dealt with at source, and at the earliest opportunity. People managers need to have the confidence and capability to be proactive and deal with conflict at the earliest possible stage. This means challenging behaviours that cross the line into being inappropriate, and being sensitive to situations where banter becomes bickering, as well as picking up on any underlying tensions in their team.

Participating in regular people management training will lay the foundations for a manager to be effective at preventing and managing conflict in their teams. This should include specific training in conflict resolution, including mediation and facilitation techniques, and how to have difficult conversations with people. They need to understand how conflict manifests itself in organisations, and what constitutes bullying and harassment. They need to be effective at managing performance in a positive and proactive way, and understand the value of giving regular, informal feedback to people as well as the need to tackle underperformance.


The return on investment

If more organisations were aware of the potential benefits of training managers to support them in the people management role, perhaps more would be keen to invest in this area.

Respondents to our employer survey are significantly more likely to report several tangible outcomes in their ability to handle conflict where they have invested in people management skills training. For example, four in five (79%) agree that ‘if there is conflict within a team, a line manager would help to resolve this quickly’ compared with three in five (61%) organisations where managers haven’t been trained, while four in five (82%) agree that ‘line managers help their team to build healthy relationships’ compared with 56% of organisations where managers hadn’t been trained.

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