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Who wants to be... A good conflict manager: Gill Dix

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Attendees at Professor Paul Latreille's workshop at the recent East of England Acas conference were given a handset for voting - reminiscent of the ones used by the audience in the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But the issue in question at the workshop wasn't geography, science, history or popular culture. It was the audience's experience of conflict at work, and what they perceive as the solutions.
Gill Dix

Gill Dix

Gill Dix is Head of Strategy at Acas.

The sample was small - just 31 in the audience for the second of what was two master classes - but some of the voting patterns were curiously reminiscent of more robust data on the issue.

Most workshop participants were women - not surprising given their overall greater presence among the HR population (the audience was largely HR, employers and union reps) and as Paul Latreille pointed out, most mediators in his experience, also tend to be women. Almost all, 97%, reported that there had been some conflict in their workplace over the last couple of years, which is a rate that is perhaps higher than wider samples of employers would report, or be prepared to admit. The greatest perceived cost of conflict was lost time (80%)(including HR, senior managers and line managers' time), absenteeism for the parties involved, or the spill over effects where more serious conflict can lead to a fall in morale and absence, or lowered productivity among other employees. Next were concerns about legal costs. Previous research on mediation, pdf icon Mediation: A Thematic Review of the Acas/CIPD Evidence [806kb] for instance by Acas and the CIPD, also highlighted these as the costs associated with conflict.

What about solutions? The voting patterns at the workshop differed here from the wider GB picture: 61% of the audience had 'a trained third party' in their workplace that could offer mediation. This is a rate much higher than likely to be the case across Britain's workplaces as a whole - the latest figure for the Workplace Employment Relations Study reported that just 8% of workplaces had used mediation in the year prior to the survey. The difference is probably one of audience composition - the more 'knowing' and interested' are more likely to be self selecting for the workshop.

Paul Latreille took the group on a whirl wind tour of the evidence. There is a growing interest in mediation not least among government, with successive reviews seeing it as an important option in terms of early dispute resolution. High success rates, speed of resolution, lower costs, greater confidentiality and the option it provides to 'preserve' the relationship are amongst its strengths. In a recent commentary on mediation, pdf icon Mediation - whose story is it anyway? [108kb],questions about its value tend to be associated with low take-up, its suitability in certain areas such as discrimination, and the 'stickability' of its solutions. More work is needed on cost and benefits; and more efforts are needed to promote the mediation both inside workplaces where it is already on offer, and across the economy as a whole.

But is mediation the only solution? Talk turned to 'Maslow's Hammer'- the notion that if there is only a single tool (i.e. a hammer) available, all problems are treated in the same way (i.e. as nails). The point is that there shouldn't be just one tool in the toolkit. We need to adopt a wider range of options for managing conflict and Paul put forward some solutions from conflict coaching to peer review panels and arbitration. But he also argued that seeking a cure to conflict isn't the only way forward. Prevention is perhaps more important. This is where conflict management steps in. What is needed is a change of mind set, and managers that deal with conflict proactively and are skilled and confident in their approach. Back to the handsets: a worrying 65% at the workshop felt their managers don't have the skills to deal with conflict.

Is it time to revisit whether conflict management holds the place it requires and deserves on the management agenda? Is a shift in perspective needed? The costs of the employment tribunal service have been a subject of much political and policy debate over the last decade, but less emphasis has been placed on looking for other solutions to responding to disputes. Having formal discipline and grievance procedures in place is likely to be an enduring and important feature of workplace approaches. But do managers need to take a more strategic look at conflict handling which starts with day-to-day conversations, cooperative working and tackling challenges as they emerge, before they take on the status of conflict.

This is an issue that Acas has been considering over recent years, and with academics has produced a series of case studies and papers including a significant focus on the value and opportunities presented by mediation.

A new Acas policy paper, pdf icon Reframing Resolution - Managing Conflict and Resolving Individual Employment Disputes in the Contemporary Workplace [217kb], by Richard Saundry, Paul Latreille and others, published today, reports on this growing evidence base and reviews findings from a recent ESRC funded seminar series. It argues that a new 'resolution gap' has emerged as a result of changing roles inside the workplace as well as changes to the nature of conflict. The paper provides a comprehensive state-of-the-art look at opportunities for refreshing this important area of workplace policy.

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