We can do this the easy way or the hard way…

Hard way or easy way
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Adrian Wakeling
Senior Policy Analyst
Acas
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Acas’ latest policy paper. ‘The road less travelled? Taking the informal route to conflict resolution’, encourages managers to use emotional intelligence to resolve problems at work before they get out of hand. But what challenges does the informal route present and are we equipped to come out the other side in one piece?

Why is informal best?

Before we set off, let’s remind ourselves why informal is often best. It is:

  • Cheaper: on average, an employee grievance takes up more than two weeks of management time and each disciplinary case takes 18 days (CIPD figures). Compare that to a well-timed ‘informal chat’
  • Better for wellbeing and team morale: a recent Acas paper on tackling bullying at work suggested that ‘codes of conduct’ agreed between teams might be one of the best ways of promoting positive behaviours and reducing conflict
  • Less damaging to productivity: Acas has identified ‘seven levers of productivity’. Four of the levers offer a useful prescription to organisations looking to minimise the disruptive impact of conflict:
    • Skilled line managers (Lever 2) have...
    • ...clarity about rights and responsibilities (Lever 4), and are able to...
    • ...manage conflict effectively (Lever 3) with a sense of...
    • ...fairness (Lever 5)

What are the challenges?

But this isn’t the whole picture. All the recent research tells us that although the route we want to take might, to quote the poet Robert Frost, have “the better claim”, it is not without its difficulties. For example, we know that:

  • Many managers don’t have the confidence to handle conversations that can be quite emotive and challenging
  • Many employers do not recruit people with the right competences – ‘conflict management’ is certainly not seen as a management priority
  • There is a growing tension around who is responsible for managing conflict. Is it:
    • Leaders? Sometimes, but recent research from Richard Saundry shows that many organisations manage conflict in a reactive rather than a strategic way
    • HR? In many organisations the HR function is becoming increasingly centralised and losing touch with line managers and staff.
    • Line manager? This is often the case but they often experience a palpable fear at the thought of messing up and being held responsible for tribunal claims.  

How can emotional intelligence help?

We all want to encourage our intrepid (employment relations) traveller to take the informal route to conflict resolution. The question is, what do we advise they to carry in their (metaphorical) backpack?

I believe they need:

  • A real sense that they are part of a broad organisational commitment to tackling conflict at the earliest opportunity and to developing a culture that promotes wellbeing, diversity and fairness.
  • Belief in themselves. It’s OK to use your interpersonal skills but back these up with a deeper understanding of human psychology. The Acas paper looks at two areas that might help: ‘self-determination theory’ (the degree of freedom you have to make your own decisions (and your own mistakes!)); and ‘attachment theory’ (the nature of attachment an employee has with their manager – this is often influenced by many developmental and environmental factors)
  • The chance to practice controlling one’s emotions and reflecting on those presented by others. Managers need a safe and supportive environment to test out their interpersonal skills. Being informal can be a little scary, as you offer a bit of yourself in the hope of a reciprocal exchange and greater understanding.

Is it time for more reflective learning?

It would be absurd to suggest that managers need an in-depth psychological profile of their staff in order to know how to interact with them and prevent conflict.

But there is scope for us all to learn a little more about what triggers our emotions and the impact they have on others.

And it is certainly time to advocate a little more reflective learning on the part of managers when it comes to looking after workplace relationships.

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