Brendan Barber: Do organisations expect too much of line managers?

Overloaded manager

The onus is often on the line manager to fulfil many core workplace objectives, from productivity to wellbeing. Brendan Barber, chair of Acas, asks whether or not we expect too much from them.

I am not the first person to ask this question. And most articles and blogs I read seem to reach the same conclusion: the line manager’s inbox has become overloaded with responsibility. So, why do ideas appear to be so thin on the ground when it comes to doing something about it?

From the collective to the individual

Many of my formative years as a trade union leader were dominated by collective employment rights, and negotiations and partnerships between employers and trade unions.

Put bluntly, a confidence gap is emerging amongst line managers … partly caused by the centralisation of the HR function”

We now live in an era where the focus has shifted significantly towards individual rights. That means that dealing with an employee’s working life and their concerns falls more and more to their line manager. This makes some sense, as they are the ones who know the individual and who work closely alongside them day-in, day-out.

And many would argue that the focus on individual rights has been revolutionary in the way it has helped us understand employee wellbeing and the mechanics of interpersonal relationships. But, while we are learning how to motivate employees, engage them and make them more productive, it is too easy to assume that proximity equals responsibility, in other words: “You are closest to the problem –  you deal with it”.

Line managers are at the front line of employment relations, but is it time to call for the cavalry? Let us take one issue that is of perennial concern to all workplaces: conflict.

Managing individual conflict at work

As you would expect, Acas is something of an expert on conflict: how it starts, how it develops and, most importantly, how it can be effectively managed. You will notice that I don’t say “how it can be eradicated”. That is the first lesson to learn. Conflict is a natural part of life. What we can do – as employers, senior managers, HR, line managers and employee representatives – is to take it back to being a matter of collective as well as individual responsibility.

Handling conflict is too often now left in the hands of line managers. Yet new Acas research by Richard Saundry and Gemma Wibberley shows that many line managers are left feeling isolated and ill-prepared to deal with the challenge of resolving difficult issues involving their staff.

Put bluntly, a “confidence gap” is emerging among line managers in many workplaces. In the organisations in our research, this is partly caused by the centralisation of the HR function.

Old support networks, often based on informal social interaction, are beginning to diminish. So if HR is no longer in a place to offer the same level of support and advice as they once did, what is to be done?

To train or not to train?

Training can too easily be seen as a remedy to every problem. But, in this case, training for line managers can really help. One of Acas’ most popular training events is on “handling difficult conversations”, whether these conversations are to do with conduct, performance or personal issues (or, as is often the case, a complex mixture of all these things). Many workplaces also welcome training simply on having “one-to-ones”. Allowing a little time to reflect, and providing some straightforward strategies for holding conversations on a regular basis, can make a world of difference.

Strategic conflict management systems

I firmly believe that conflict is too important, and too integral to our working life and wellbeing, to be left solely to line managers.

Conflict deserves its place at the top table and everyone should have a voice in how it is managed. Usually, the solutions will involve using a mixture of informal, formal and, hopefully, more innovative approaches (like mediation) to manage conflict.

But the key is to ensure that managing conflict is not just seen as a procedural, mechanistic or reactive process. On the contrary, dealing effectively with conflict is a highly skilled business that needs support and direction from senior managers.

Acas has spent the last couple of years starting a bigger conversation about the nature of conflict in the modern workplace, how it is changing and what we can do about it. We have been gathering the latest research findings, policy thinking and operational experience to come up with a new way of dealing with conflict.

What are the solutions?

Acas believes that successful conflict management starts inside the workplace and is calling on organisations to:

  • share the responsibility of managing conflict by making it a strategic issue discussed at the highest level;
  • provide more training for line managers not just in managing conflict but also in the more generic “handling difficult conversations”; and
  • recognise the factors that can help employers to prevent problems escalating into full-blown disputes – this importantly includes effective channels of representation, particularly those provided by unions.

Conflict costs the country an estimated 370 million working days per year. We cannot afford to ignore it. Be part of the bigger conversation; I would be interested to hear what you have to say.

Brendan Barber

About Brendan Barber

Sir Brendan Barber is chair of Acas. He was general secretary of the TUC from 2003 until 2012.
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