When the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – managing conflict inside the workplace
Gill Dix was previously Head of Workplace Policy for Acas, leading Acas’s conflict management research programme for several years. She now works in research development at Warwick Institute for Employment Research.
It’s a fact that not everything goes smoothly at work. Whether the concern be personal or organisational, issues crop up that need attention. Some conflicts may be minor, others major, but a growing body of evidence suggests that the earlier we turn to addressing matters, the more effective the outcome will be – from an efficiency and employment relations perspective. The evidence of the cost of poorly handled conflict is especially compelling, with 2021 analysis from Acas estimating the annual cost of conflict to UK business as being just shy of £30 billion.
If we know about the costs, how much do we know about the solutions? One of the best ways of plugging this gap is to look inside organisations to first understand how different conflict is perceived, and second consider the solutions organisations are exploring, germane to their own particular circumstances. This is why in recent years Acas has been using a case study approach to explore how organisations manage conflict, and in particular to consider the strategies they are using to address conflict early, and in the most impactful and fair ways.
East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust
Acas’s latest report in a series of studies looks at a conflict management programme introduced by East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust. Researchers from the University of Westminster and the University of Central Lancashire undertook a series of interviews with key gatekeepers, stakeholders and staff at the Trust, as well as documentary and statistical analysis.
Employing over 8,000 staff, it’s easy to imagine how the natural dynamics of such a large, and multi-disciplinary workforce will generate tensions, differences in opinion and the potential for conflict.
In their efforts to seek timely, more compassionate, and less adversarial approaches, the Trust has embarked on a new journey, using a multifaceted solution to address what the researchers describe as having been ‘an ingrained dynamic of claim and counter-claim which destroyed employment relationships’.
So, what strategies have been used in East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, and can we see evidence of an organisation adopting an approach where the whole has potential to have greater impact than the sum of the parts?
It’s still early days for the scheme, but there are positive and promising signs:
- Mediation is gaining traction: with an increase in referrals and a reported resolution rate of over 90 per cent.
- Three-quarters of the concluded cases brought to the early referral scheme between January 2019 and Summer 2022 were resolved informally (while 22% progressed to formal procedures).
- The key stakeholders have shown a commitment to emphasising the value of early resolution and a willingness to shift from the previous focus on compliance and dependency on formal procedures.
- There was also evidence that the key partners are working well together to play a role in addressing conflict, in both minor and complex issues, demonstrating the new joined up approach.
- More broadly: the proportion of Trust staff reporting that they ‘have personally experienced harassment, bullying or abuse at work by managers in the last 12 months’ fell from 13% in 2015 to 9% in 2021, as reported in the NHS staff survey. That cannot be neatly attributed to the new scheme based on the evidence at hand, but nonetheless augurs well.
The report points to the value of having carefully designed individual strategies for managing conflict, reinforced by a focus on an integrated approach. This is good news for the advocates of integrated conflict management systems.
The study explains how the Trust has also given meaning to what is often loosely referred to as ‘informal resolution’, codifying a series of options for people to consider. And it indicates the potential of an organisation-wide shift away from blame and compliance toward outcomes that benefit all the parties (an issue Acas is currently exploring further in a complementary study of a ‘just culture’ approach adopted in another NHS Trust, due to report later in 2023).
Evidence from the Trust also endorses the value of senior management engagement and visibility when it comes to change management, not least when it comes to introducing new ideas around culture and conflict management. This was signalled at the outset of the scheme in the CEO’s words expressing a commitment to the value of the compassion and kindness shown to service users now being mirrored in the leadership of staff:
Stepping up training in the Trust, and in other organisations embarking on a similar journey, is going to be key to advancing sustainable approaches to conflict management, and fully realising the benefits of a whole, integrated approach to managing conflict at work.
The ever evolving economic and industrial climate will unavoidably give rise to challenges, and conflict, in the workplace. The onus is on Acas and those analysts and stakeholders engaged in this sphere of work to find new solutions to support conflict management, that will make a difference.
Drawing on research evidence will be fundamental to this process, as will designing and evaluating workplace interventions focussed on structures and skills to address conflict at work. It will be important to keep the programme of work live to the opportunities for a multi-disciplinary research approach; one that tackles systems for high quality knowledge to practice transfer; and is sufficiently brave to consider the antecedents of modern conflict, as well as the solutions. It has been a pleasure leading the Acas conflict management research programme across a number of years, and I look forward to continuing to engage in the future of Acas's work in this area, and that of the wider analytical community.
Follow Gill on Twitter @DixGill
Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE)
The Institute for Research into Organisations, Work and Employment (iROWE) aims to engage with stakeholders to help build a fair and equitable future of work.