Don’t blame managers for workplace conflict

11 Feb 2020 By Penny Newton-Hurley

To solve the problem of bullying and harassment at work, we need more than just better management training, says Penny Newton-Hurley

Inevitably, the CIPD’s new report into workplace bullying and harassment found that line managers were the most likely culprits, with 40 per cent of the 2,000 respondents reporting that their boss was responsible.  

But managers are stuck in the middle. In terms of organisational hierarchy, they’re the link between strategy and delivery, but also in the thick of workplace life. They have the biggest role when it comes to the day-to-day of people management. They get to know employees in their everyday routines, through the cycle of pressures, seeing them at their best and worst. It means, of course, that managers can be both the cause of strains in relationships and the solution.

As the CIPD concludes in its report, line managers don’t get the most support when it comes to people management development. Around 60 per cent of line managers surveyed said they’d not received any people management training. It’s true that with limited budgets for training, HR is more able to see returns from concentrating on the ‘stars’: high-potential new talent and senior team members who can deliver change and innovation. So job done. Get more middle managers trained and they’ll stop giving their reports a hard time.

Except they won’t – not unless there’s trust and honesty. The most telling insight from the CIPD study is that more than half of those who’d experienced bullying hadn’t reported the problem to their employer. A quarter believed bullying and harassment was ‘swept under the carpet’.

So no amount of improved management skills is going to reach the core of employee anxiety, which is that managers only want to close down conflict as quickly as possible. People management, in itself, can be a perfect way to set up good principles, a process to follow that helps to smooth over situations. But it doesn’t change any of the essential realities of workplaces: people don’t always get on, particularly when they’re being put under pressure and when they feel they’re being judged by a manager; and conflict is an important part of working life – it shows there’s diversity, and there’s a challenge.

What’s needed is for staff to have greater confidence in their employer and line manager; knowing that the response to their grievance, in the first instance, will be handled informally via an open conversation. A conversation with empathy, maturity and, critically for managers, self-awareness – the ability to admit when their own manner or behaviour has contributed to a problem. And ultimately, that means making sure there are informal offerings available, like mediation and neutral assessment, to channel those conversations without resorting to the taint of disciplinary action.

Most of all, there needs to be a higher standard, specifically, of conversation skills. Skills that lead to a genuine sense of trust in the nature of the conversation – it should be open-minded, flexible and not part of a token process that leads to an already known and managed outcome.

Penny Newton-Hurley is an associate mediator and trainer at CMP, and a member of the CIPD

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