Time for organisations to address the problem of workplace conflict

27 May 2014

Lyndsey Boardman

UCLan researcher publishes collaborative study

Developing proactive ways of managing conflict between staff should be a central part of organisational strategy according to results of a four year programme of research conducted by iROWE (Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment) at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan).

The research funded by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) involved detailed case studies of five UK organisations and the findings, published this week, represent a major contribution to understanding the challenges facing organisations in managing difficult issues in the workplace.

Conflict is a significant feature of organisational life - the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) has estimated that employers devote an average of 18 days in management and HR time to each disciplinary case, and 14.4 days to managing an employee grievance. Moreover, employees in the UK spend an average of 1.8 hours per week dealing with conflict equating to an annual ‘loss’ of 370 million working days.

But the research conducted by iROWE Visiting Researcher and Plymouth University Associate Professor (Reader) Dr Richard Saundry and Dr Gemma Wibberley, iROWE Research Associate, argues that the capacity of organisations to respond to workplace conflict has been severely eroded. In particular, line managers often lack the confidence and skills to deal with these issues.

"Many line managers do not feel equipped for the challenge and we are in danger of expecting too much of them.”

Dr Wibberley argued that: “Front-line managers have become increasingly responsible for handling workplace conflict, and there is often an assumption that they will be able to do so naturally. However, effective dispute resolution requires suitable training, support from the organisation, trusting relationships and sufficient time; criteria often at odds with other demands of the business.”

In a speech given on Wednesday at a fringe meeting at the Wales TUC, Sir Brendan Barber, Chair of Acas commented on the research saying that: “We would all like to see conflict resolved in the workplace rather than the court room. But even when they are bubbling beneath the surface, problems at work can be very demanding to manage effectively. Many line managers do not feel equipped for the challenge and we are in danger of expecting too much of them.”

The report suggests that organisations can take action to remedy these issues by:

  • making the management of conflict a strategic issue
  • providing line managers with the skills needed to address and manage difficult issues
  • not just in managing conflict but also in more generic ‘handling difficult conversations’
  • providing for effective structures of employee representation

According to Dr Saundry: “Organisations need to focus on rebuilding the relationships in workplaces which provide channels through which conflict can be minimised and resolved – but the first step is to recognise that it is central to the well-being and performance of their employees.”