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Why are managers not addressing workplace conflict?

A new blog* caught my attention today as it focuses on one of the great challenges to all of us working in the area of managing workplace conflict. The blog is written by Professor Richard Saundry, Professor of HRM and Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield and one of the leading experts in workplace conflict management.

Professor Saundry’s blog is the first in a series looking at the links between management capability, how conflict is managed and the impact on productivity. The most interesting point for me was his assertion that despite repeated studies showing the value of developing line manager competence in managing conflict, progress in taking any action has been painfully slow. The reasons for this, so Professor Saundry argues, are that organisations have focused on leadership skills rather than what are regarded as ‘lower level’ competences, plus the difficulty of ‘selling’ training on what are perceived by managers to be basic skills.

I do not disagree with these two reasons but I would add that there is already significant training of line managers happening within organisations – even if we’d like it to be more. Recent CIPD research** found that over a third of organisations had been training line managers in conflict management / difficult conversation skills in the previous 12 months. If, therefore, significant numbers of managers have received training, but conflict is still not being addressed by them – resulting in distracting, costly and damaging formal processes – the question is why are managers not using the training they have been given?

For me one of the answers is the risk / reward factor for managers. Having been a line manager myself for over 20 years I was used to working to my own performance objectives and setting them for my team members. Not once did any of my objectives relate to ensuring team conflict was resolved early, or even relate to creating a positive team environment. Therefore the reward for managers to address conflict is missing, and, even worse, the risk in attempting to deal with it is significant. As a mediator I often have cases where a manager has tried to address poor performance of a team member only to have a bullying grievance raised against them. Why would managers bother to involve themselves in resolving tricky relationship issues with staff when they will not be recognised for it and are opening themselves up to a complaint and investigation? You would hope that a good manager would recognise the great benefits to be gained from team members having good morale, working well together and having positive engagement, but for many the risk / reward equation does not add up.

We therefore need to do line manager training in how to manage workplace conflict but that must go hand in hand with giving appropriate incentivisation and reward for managers to use the skills they are taught. One final point – the training must include helping managers understand when their skills are insufficient and they need to call in professional help. A manager trying to address conflict but without the necessary competence can often escalate a situation and cause further harm to those involved.

**Managing Conflict in the Modern Workplace – CIPD, Jan 2020, Fig 25


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