Sir Brendan Barber: Why we need conflict

Sir Brendan Barber, chair of Acas. Photo: Acas

Could fairness at work be the Trojan horse that brings individual conflict management back into the board room? Acas chair Sir Brendan Barber explains.

Conflict has had an image problem for a while. It goes against the grain of the way most organisations aim to line themselves up, with a focus on common interests and goals. These common interests are epitomised by employee engagement and wellbeing. These are real forces for good but, in contrast, conflict is seen as negative, disruptive and unwanted.

But times change and I believe that conflict at work needs to be taken more seriously. It should not only be associated with procedural failure, miscommunication or employee misbehaviour, as research often suggests. Rather, it should be seen as a dynamic force that can play the role of critical friend for organisational change and champion for improved working lives.

It is an opportune time to rediscover the value of good conflict. The ongoing moral crisis in organisational values – driven by sexual harassment disclosures, gender inequality and the redefining of what constitutes fairness amid emerging business models and working patterns – is challenging prevailing workplace cultures and management accountability.

Promoting good behaviour and enlightened values at work doesn’t mean ignoring disagreements, it means recognising them, listening and responding promptly. The recent publication of new Acas research, Managing workplace conflict: The changing role of HR, on the role HR plays in managing conflict, provides us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we are and what needs to be done.

 

Conflict is… part of how we develop and sustain positive relationships

If we talk about promoting positive behaviours at work – challenging bullying, driving up equality – then people get it. But the bit that people are less comfortable with is acknowledging real or perceived clashes of interests.

But what if, as Richard Saundry suggests in his recent Acas policy paper, Fairness, justice and capability – repositioning conflict management, we were able to reframe conflict management as the “capacity of organisations to develop and sustain positive relationships”?

What if conflict was not just about tribunal claims, grievances and disciplinary hearings, but about training and nurturing “good managers” who are able to “constantly negotiate and renegotiate their relationship with staff and other colleagues”?

This would involve greater investment in the informal, “latent” stage of conflict, where line managers can be so effective with the right training.

 

Conflict is… one of the ways we determine what’s right and wrong

The strong body of Acas research on the management of individual conflict tells us a great deal about the role everyone should play in preventing and resolving conflict and the challenges they face. We know that there are real issues around:

  • The eroding levels of employee representation at work is worrying, as these people are often the glue between managers and staff, particularly in conflictual situations, offering early interventions that can help take the sting out of potential disputes;
  • Confidence on the part of front line managers. Whether this stems from a genuine fear to tackle difficult conversations, or lack of support and training, many opt for a formal rather than an informal route to conflict resolution;
  • A growing interest in mediation and other more creative techniques for preventing and resolving disputes. But initiatives seem localised and still need a more strategic approach.

The epidemic of very poor conduct at work tells us that there should be no bystanders in the fight for equality and fairness. But people need to feel safe when whistleblowing, and this means building trust in leaders and organisational values.


Conflict is… a critical friend to organisational change and cultural atrophy

Our research finds that for many HR professionals, conflict management – and indeed employee relations more generally – is seen as “counter-aspirational”, something you leave behind if you want to progress and be taken seriously.

In practice this often means that HR advice to the critical front line managers is focused on ensuring legal and procedural compliance. It encourages a culture of avoidance and it is a real shame as it means that issues that could be nipped in the bud are left to fester and become entrenched. In these scenarios, as the report says, responses to conflict are inevitably “reactive, late and focused on the management of risk”.

The Acas report suggests that “fairness needs to be a core consideration of HR practitioners” and that HR has the “opportunity to go beyond being the keeper of procedures”. This is true, but fairness should be a core consideration for all of us: HR, employers, line managers, unions and employee representatives.

Let’s not be afraid to disagree, to challenge and to question.

Sir Brendan Barber

About Sir Brendan Barber

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