Workplace conflict takes its toll on employees, both those directly involved or on the periphery of an issue. A recent CIPD study suggests four in ten UK employees experienced some form of interpersonal conflict in the previous year, with impacts including reduced motivation or commitment, and one in ten of those in conflict moving job or leaving their organisation. Organisations have increasingly turned to workplace mediation as a way of helping to resolve issues more quickly and easily, but few – at least outside of the US – have integrated it as part of a conflict management system.
However, Prof Paul Latreille at the Management School has recently completed a project with Associate Prof Richard Saundry at Plymouth University that investigates the implementation and operation of such a system at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (NHCT). The final report is based on a survey of operational managers and over 50 interviews with key stakeholders, and examines the key features of the system and its development, as well as providing early findings as to its impact.
In common with previous research, workplace mediation was seen to have had a significant impact on staff, with nine out of ten mediations resulting in an agreement and most respondents feeling that their situation had improved as a result. Crucially however, NHCT’s more systemic and strategic approach – which includes stress risk assessments, mediation, team facilitation, conflict coaching and training – goes beyond simply mediation, and was found to be having a positive impact on the Trust and its employees. As Prof Latreille notes: “The key for organisations is to move beyond seeing interpersonal conflict as a purely transactional issue. As managers in our survey reported, not only can conflict lead to wasted staff and management time, together with reduced motivation and productivity, it can potentially compromise patient care. Conflict needs to be recognised as a legitimate part of the organisational vocabulary, and a strategic approach to it adopted that focuses on prevention, early intervention, management and resolution.”
Although Latreille and Saundry acknowledge that challenges remain, they argue NHCT represents a unique example in the UK of an organisation that has adopted such a strategic approach to conflict management, and there is evidence that this has led to the development of a culture in which early resolution of issues is encouraged and a collaborative culture is embedded. “The evidence suggests the changes have led to significant improvements in the working environment, as measured for example by the Trust’s staff survey results for 2014. These show NHCT is now among the top 20 per cent for many of the questions, and the best for an acute trust in relation to bullying,” Prof Latreille added.
In 2012/13, Latreille and Saundry were co-conveners on an ESRC seminar series which brought together academics, practitioners and policy makers. This is where TCM Group’s David Liddle – who worked with NHCT in establishing the scheme – put forward the Trust as an interesting case-study of an organisation that had moved beyond workplace mediation.
The findings from the study will shortly receive international exposure when Prof Latreille presents a paper based on the research at the Labor and Employment Relations Association (LERA) Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh at the end of this month. Scheduled alongside world-leading experts from UCLA and Cornell in the AILR/LERA Best Papers Symposium, this will provide an opportunity to showcase some of the work being undertaken within the Management School aligned to its mission in respect of socially-responsible work practices.