HR needs to learn the art of the conversation

Conversational intelligence is required to create high-quality relationships with employees, says Arran Heal

The 165 per cent increase in employment tribunals last year (according to Ministry of Justice figures), along with a growing backlog of cases, is not merely the fallout from the removal of tribunal fees. It’s indicative of a shift of power in the workplace.

The 'natural' authority of organisational leaders has been eroded, just as it has in society more generally, such as attitudes towards traditional pillars like politicians, the police and bank managers. Employees are more willing to question and challenge, and in the wake of public scandals, to speak out when there's any suggestion of improper behaviour, bullying or harassment. In situations where there would have been an instinctive deference to authority, there’s now a sense of outrage and an entitlement to justice (or even revenge). Is HR set up to operate in this new kind of environment?

What's needed is for employee relations to be moved into the area of L&D. So rather than situations being dealt with reactively – in terms of a series of grievance cases, disciplinary processes and whistle-blowing – they are treated as a wider development issue. All staff, at all levels, need support in learning how to talk together, work together and deal with differences better in this new 21st century context. The threat to HR is an ever-increasing burden of administration around disputes, in supporting managers and in preparing cases.

In practice, that means something as fundamental as conversation skills and making sure we’re all having better conversations, because we’re not all the capable communicators we think we are. When there are signs of confrontation, we will typically opt for the route of least resistance – until there’s a serious problem, and then come the flashes of anger and a reliance on our authority and deference to formal processes.

Conversations affected by power politics and reticence have hidden consequences – they lead to secrecy, mistrustful relationships and poor decision-making, as well as the more formal consequences of festering grievances, conflict and the potential for disciplinary cases and tribunals. Better skills mean all those inevitable workplace disagreements and differences in opinion and personality can be dealt with lightly, through open conversations that are based on trust. To reach this stage, managers and staff need ‘conversational intelligence’ – something that can be learned and practised – where no one feels as if their problems are unimportant or unsolvable, there’s always a constructive way to reach a resolution.

Conversations only improve when they are a natural and regular part of working lives, not an event, where people are summoned to a meeting, or into a weekly slot. HR needs to make sure there are consistent messages about expectations from staff in terms of open conversations – and make it clear about what support and development is available, encouraging senior managers and leaders to be the main role models, and put more time and resources into supporting people to move towards dialogue with each other and away from escalating their negative feelings.

Managers need to structure their communications and relationships with staff in ways that provide an important element of time, to mitigate against knee-jerk reactions and voicing of instant opinions. That’s why the face-to-face method needs to be used as much as possible. They provide a useful series of pauses to arrange and set up and deliver, ensuring time for reflection and a context where thought and behaviour will be different. And in support of this approach there needs to be work on ensuring people understand that face-to-face doesn’t just mean bad news.

Arran Heal is managing director of CMP