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New ACAS research

conflict conundrum to mediation miracle?

In depth case studies on the impact of introducing mediation into an organisation are relatively few and far between. So when a new and detailed study from ACAS is produced, written by two academics who are expert in this field, it is definitely worth careful consideration. The study is called, ‘Towards a system of conflict management? – An evaluation of the impact of workplace mediation at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’ by Paul Latreille and Richard Saundry.

Cutting to the chase, what does this research tell us? Can it prove that workplace mediation is the panacea to all conflict at work or is it just a mixture of subjective views lacking substantive evidence? The answer is of course more nuanced than this. For me the research

  • Confirms some things we knew

  • Tells us some things which are new

  • Leaves some important questions unanswered

I’ll look at each of these but first of all what is the study? It is a research paper which looks at the impact over the past 10 years of introducing a system of conflict management into the Northumbria NHS Trust. It is certainly in depth and thorough – nearly 50 pages of data, analysis and insight based on a variety of research methods covering documentation review, statistical analysis, interviews and survey. The Executive Summary and Conclusion provide an excellent overview but if you really want to get the ‘juicy’ data you need to go through the whole report. I’ve picked out some of the best pieces of data in the points below.

Confirms some things we knew

The causes of conflict and the impact on business are well documented areas. The research confirms that personality clashes are by far the most common cause of conflict with 34% of the Trust managers surveyed putting it at number one, with poor performance management coming in next at 9%. Similarly it is no surprise to see that the most damaging result of conflict is wasted management and staff time, as indicated by 60% of the managers s

urveyed. This will not be a surprise to those involved in conflict management, and neither will the success rates of using mediation. Of all the cases that went to mediation 90% reached an agreement and three months after the mediation, of those who replied to the evaluation, 60% agreed that the mediation had been at least 50% effective. The report also reminds us of some of the key success factors when setting up a mediation scheme, in particular the need to have the right stakeholders bought in (specifically the unions in this case), best practice of drawing internal mediators from right across the organisation and the importance of internal promotion. An incredible statistic from the survey was that mediation scheme awareness was at 91% among the managers. So, some great data to back up some well worn arguments. But what is new?

Tells us some things which are new

Where this piece of research really breaks new ground is that it demonstrates the effective implementation of a strategicapproach to conflict management. Whilst many organisations have introduced mediation schemes, the NHCT have avoided seeing mediation as an additional operational tool, and instead have positioned it as a leading element in an overall approach which encompasses a range of preventative and early intervention methods. Conflict management is a critical element of the organisation’s approach to employee wellbeing and engagement, and as such is elevated to a more strategic level. The impact of this is significant. It has meant that an early intervention culture has developed within the organisation with strong preference for informal resolution of conflict rather than resorting to formal procedures. Almost 60% of those surveyed expressed a preference for informal resolution of workplace problems compared with 13% who preferred formal. The key to this has been the blending of tools such as mediation, conflict coaching and team facilitation with training. A major programme of conflict awareness and skills development has been undertaken and most importantly, conflict skills are required and valued as a management competence. The survey showed that amongst the most senior managers 73% valued conflict handling ability as a ‘critical’ or ‘very important’ skill.

Leaves some important questions unanswered

Of course the most critical question is how effective the NHCT approach has been. Unfortunately critical baseline data regarding disciplinary and grievance cases was not available. As the report states, the lack of data prior to 2008 makes ‘it difficult to

draw any inference as to the impact of conflict management at NHCT’. It would be great to see incontrovertible evidence in the form of grievances and disciplinaries running at X before the new approach and dropping to Y after. This is not available so we have to rely on broader comparisons. The study does give some compelling evidence in this respect. In 2011 the Trust’s grievance and disciplinary rates were 0.25 and 0.9 respectively per 100 employees compared to average public sector workplace rates of 1.3 and 4.8. Perhaps even stronger is the evidence of the NHS Staff Survey where in 2005 NHCT were 2% above the NHS average for staff reporting bullying and harassment and 7% above for staff suffering from work related stress. By 2014 there had been a major turnaround with NHCT being 6% below the average on bullying and harassment and 5% below on work related stress.

Another key question that remains unanswered is financial return. Survey data is valuable but it is based on subjective opinion. If we are to make the case for organisations taking a strategic approach to conflict management then we need to see the numbers. What has been the cost of this approach and what are the savings – or avoided cost – that has resulted? If we can turn to the Finance Director and say invest £X and get a 10% return within Y years, justification becomes so much more straightforward. Yes it is difficult to work some of these things out but not impossible. So if the research authors happen to read this, how about looking at the financial case for strategic conflict management in a future piece of research?

The unanswered questions should not detract from what is overall an excellent contribution to the evidence bank to support mediation and conflict management. Perhaps the ‘mediation miracle’ I refer to in the title is a little strong, but the research shows that the NHCT has made an outstanding and apparently successful contribution to the organisation culture by introducing conflict management at a strategic level.


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