Conflict Resolution and the Productivity Gap

With economic concerns mounting and some worrying UK industry stats (UK output/hr was almost 20% below the average for the other G7 member nations according to the ONS), productivity is firmly back on the political agenda – although for most of us in the business world it never really went away did it?

Whilst there appears to be general agreement about the need to improve, there’s no clear consensus about how to achieve this. The national response has been described by some commentators as just a “vague collection of existing policies”.

But there are a number of bodies out there trying to add structure to the debate.

ACAS suggested 7 Key Levers in their June 2015 publication “Building Productivity in the UK”, and whilst this clearly focuses on the role effective management of the workplace plays rather than any broader economic policy response, it does give businesses an “in” and is the framework ACAS continue to champion as they encourage employers to step up and meet the challenge.

Looking at this framework in more detail throws up several questions one being:

Is Lever 3, “Managing conflict effectively”, included simply because it’s ACAS, it’s what they do and “they would say that wouldn’t they?” or is there genuinely a way of increasing output/hr if we can reclaim the time, effort and energy we lose due to workplace conflict?

With almost 40% of employers reporting the existence of some form of interpersonal conflict and 28% describing these issues as “ongoing difficult relationships” there may be more to this than ACAS banging the drum1

The relevance becomes clearer still when the negative impact of these “ongoing difficult relationships” is considered with the top 5 being:

  • Stress
  • Drop in motivation or commitment
  • Drop in productivity
  • Unworkable relationships
  • Sickness and absence

None of which are going to help your output/hr, but it also tells us we didn’t intuitively know i.e. if you put enough people together for long enough, then eventually some won’t get along and if relationships turn sour then this toxicity begins to blur the focus and drain the energy of those around it. So perhaps it’s more important to ask how we go about managing this more effectively and actually net ourselves some productivity benefits.

It’s just not enough to simply tell managers they need to create a positive environment and to “nip things in the bud” at the first signs of an issue. Firstly, the visible signs of conflict often emerge after a long gestation period and the protagonists may well be past the point where they can logically and dispassionately think about each other even though there may have been precious few indications that this was the case.  Secondly organisations rarely explain what “nipping it in the bud” looks like in practice or equip managers with the tools, techniques and skills necessary to deal with try and resolve the situation when they open Pandora’s Box!

Is it time to take a different approach and make conflict resolution a key management skillset and requirement – maybe even start to build it into our management and leadership competence frameworks? It’s not like there isn’t a template that we could use.  Remember when rafts of managers were trained in coaching principles, tools, techniques and processes?  It wasn’t because we wanted people to abandon their line management positions and become coaches, but because we wanted them to be able to support their team’s development and (perhaps more importantly) “take a coaching approach” in their day to day management.

There are recognised Alternative Dispute Resolution methods yet where organisations use things like mediation they tend to be the preserve either of the specialist or pools of designated resource trained specifically for targeted interventions.

Dispute resolution methods and processes should be part of a modern manager’s repertoire; let’s give people the tools and techniques so they are not only equipped to intervene when relationships go toxic, but they can take a “mediation approach” in those day-to-day managerial situations when things get tetchy, contentious and, if we’re not careful, ever so slightly personal. If we take this approach we might even start nipping things in the bud before they spiral out of control.  Maybe then we can also try and claw back some of that elusive productivity gap.


1 Research taken from CIPD “Getting under the skin of workplace conflict”