Managerial competences, engagement and productivity - developing positive relationships

Lead Research Organisation: University of Westminster
Department Name: Westminster Business School


There is a growing body of evidence that poor management is one of the main causes of low productivity. The UK government's recent Industrial Strategy noted that 'our managers are, on average, less proficient than many competitors' and therefore it has been argued that improving basic managerial competences is crucial if we are to solve the 'productivity puzzle'. However, the challenges facing line managers are becoming increasingly complex. In particular, the contemporary emphasis on more robust approaches to the management of performance makes it more likely that managers will find themselves having to have 'difficult conversations' and in conflict with their staff.

Workplace conflict is not only widespread but arguably inhibits workplace productivity by tying up valuable organisational resources. A CIPD survey found that over one-third of respondents had recent experience of conflict at work and it has been estimated that employees spend an average of 1.8 hours a week dealing with conflict, an annual loss of 370 million days. At the same time, the way in which managers handle conflict could have a significant impact on organisational performance by influencing levels of engagement; employees are more likely to be engaged if they feel that they are treated fairly and involved in decisions that affect them.

Although line managers play a crucial role in shaping experiences of work, there is growing evidence that they lack the skills needed to manage people effectively and identify, address and resolve difficult personnel issues. Therefore, training programmes designed to increase their capacity to deal with conflict could be one way of securing higher levels of employee engagement and improved productivity. Unfortunately, there has been no robust quantitative academic research in this area, making it difficult to build a persuasive business case for investment in conflict management competences.

This proposal aims to fill this gap by providing a detailed evaluation of the impact on engagement and productivity of 'conflict competence'. This will be conducted through a workplace trial of training interventions designed to develop the conflict resolution skills of line managers in a number of organisations in the private and public sectors. Working closely with the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) the project will trial two levels of skills development. The first will comprise of a one-day workshop designed to develop conflict resolution skills delivered to first-line managers. The second will add a further component by providing a more advanced two-day workshop to prepare senior leaders to provide support and coaching to their managers as they seek to navigate difficult personnel issues. The workshops will use a mediative model to develop the conflict competence of managers through key skills including listening, communication, influencing, reframing and negotiation, having difficult conversations and coaching.

The impact of each intervention will be tracked over a 12 month period by assessing the competence and confidence of managers, the experiences and attitudes of the employees they manage, the efficiency with which conflict is handled and measures of organisational productivity. This will be contextualised by interviews and focus groups to examine the processes through which productivity improvements are secured and also the potential barriers facing organisations.

The project will provide a valuable evidence base regarding the impact of training and development in conflict resolution skills. It not only aims to have a substantive impact on managerial competence within the case-study organisations but will also underpin the development of training tools which can be replicated in a range of organisational contexts. Furthermore, insights from the research will be shared with practitioner and policy-making communities through a comprehensive programme of dissemination and engagement.

Planned Impact

The project will have a significant impact on the participating organisations by upskilling managers in effective communication, conflict handling and resolution, with anticipated impacts on employee engagement, performance and productivity. It will also assist the development of managerial competences across organisations more generally in three main ways: first, it will inform the decisions of employers in relation to investment in conflict competence skills; second, it will provide key insights into the potential barriers to the development of more effective conflict management; and third, it will create free to use products including a benchmarking tool designed to identify gaps in conflict competence and a novel conflict management app to help managers deal more effectively with such issues. These impacts will be particularly important in smaller organisations where cost is often an inhibitor to investment in formal training.

The research will also have a positive impact on Acas' training provision, extending the knowledge of those trainers directly involved in the project but also informing the wider development of existing and new courses. In addition, the evidence gathered will shape Acas advice and guidance in relation to conflict management and dispute resolution. In the longer term, the project will create a new managerial training product which will subsequently be launched nationally by Acas, creating both instrumental and capacity building impacts.

As the UK's statutory body tasked with improving employment relations in organisations the involvement of Acas provides a powerful route to impact through its influence on both policy and practice. Furthermore, the project will be steered by a Project Advisory Board including representatives from Acas, CIPD, FSB, CBI, Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), IPA, EEF and the TUC. A practitioner forum made up of senior managers and HR professionals drawn from participating companies will also ensure that insights and learning from the project are shared.

We will extend the reach of our impact in three ways. First we will deliver a series of masterclasses for Acas advisers to share the findings of our research and its practical implications, embedding this into the training they provide for clients. Second, the broader insights about 'what works' will also be shared with private sector mediation providers, HR practitioners and regional employers represented through Local Economic Partnerships via a further series of workshops. We will also exploit existing and developing networks within the ESRC Productivity Insights Network hosted in Sheffield, which provides significant potential synergies and complementarities. Finally we shall hold two larger one-day conferences drawing together academics, policy-makers and practitioners to share findings from the research and also highlight organisational best practice and innovation.

The communications strategy for this project will be developed in conjunction with Acas. We will work to develop a specific web presence that will host a regular blog from the research team, project partners and research participants and we will also use video and other media for maximum impact. Findings from the project will be disseminated to a wide audience through the Acas Research Paper series which is not only influential in policy debates but has significant reach into practitioner communities. We will target trade/professional journals such as People Management, and Personnel Today and use channels including LinkedIn, the Conversation and Twitter to promote key messages, together with mainstream local and national media and via our other project partners (PIN and MPF). Members of the team will also seek to present at various large set-piece practitioner events, for example the annual CIPD Applied Research Conference.


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