Improving rail technology and processes is only one half of the story when it comes to increasing efficiency and performance – it’s the teams of employees that make them work. Rebecca Foreman discusses the secret to working in creative harmony

The everyday pressures of working in any large organisation – meeting performance targets, competing for opportunities for progression, needing to collaborate across teams and departments – will always make relationships more complex than they might appear on the surface. Groups of skilled, committed and capable people become dysfunctional because there’s no simple magic that makes individuals work effectively together.

A special type of stress
Issues can be exacerbated in the rail industry by the particular context: the large numbers of staff recruited for their technical skills; the need for collaboration between very different types of teams – some more focused on technical issues, some more on customers; the way in which teams are geographically dispersed. One of the strengths of the industry is the diversity of the workforce in terms of age, gender and race, but this can also bring its own challenges in terms of the diversity of perspectives and character. And perhaps most of all, there are the challenges presented by running essential services where any disruption is a major event, a matter for public concern, media attention and complaint.

The stresses of this kind of system lead to tensions between people that accumulate and develop and manifest in different ways over time. Bad decisionmaking is one result. Distracted employees, irritated and demotivated by long-standing disagreements, withholding key information, perceived or actual personality clashes – all impact on decision-making. Most seriously, disagreements and misunderstandings become part of struggles for power, and mutate into forms of bullying.

Human nature
On one level the solution to these inevitable situations is straightforward. There needs to be honesty and openness, a chance to resolve problems. A starting point for a good working culture is always around conversations: is there an environment in the workplace and among both staff and management that supports open communications? Can people trust each other enough to be honest, to speak their mind in constructive ways? Do employees have the right skills to both have those grown-up conversations and manage difficult situations and conflict when it occurs?

But it is human nature to avoid difficult conversations, which means most of these issues remain buried within day-to-day demands and pressures of running a service – and when a situation turns into conflict there is a polarisation of needs and positions. Too few employers support their people in how to have constructive conversations and manage those that become difficult. Leaders who should be setting the standards in terms of the organisation’s values, are instead better known for closed-door conversations and reluctance to talk about anything other than successes.

Organisations are also not taking into account the full costs of this kind of culture. They tend only to measure the direct costs of conflict: the cost of litigation; spending on conflict resolution professionals; employment tribunal costs; awards for claims for bullying and harassment; unfair dismissal or compromise agreements. There are many more invisible costs, missed opportunities, and negative consequences of a working environment without good conversations and good conversation skills.

Tackling the difficult questions
There are examples from the industry which demonstrate what a pro-active approach can deliver, where having the courage to encourage more openness and more honest conversations has led to hard benefits for organisations. London Underground saved £3 million over four years by working with CMP Resolutions to introduce a new fast-track approach to dealing with grievances, bullying and harassment claims. The use of a dedicated and diverse team of investigators and access to experienced mediators increased staff and union confidence in the process, halving the average amount of time taken between the start of a case and its resolution (from an average of 60 days to 30 days). New systems of data capture were introduced as a way of identifying areas for improvement in practice and for learning lessons from cases, as well as for working more closely with HR to support their role in assisting mediation and investigation. Numbers of tribunals dropped by 75 per cent. There has been a 95 per cent agreement rate in mediation cases.

Rail sector employers can only get to the stage of having a ‘clear air’ workplace if teams have trusting relationships, are open to challenge, and can appreciate and respect individual differences and opinions.

The outcomes
When this is achieved, three things happen within a team:

  • The ability to find solutions and innovate is increased significantly. The diverse nature of individuals in the team, their experience and backgrounds are accepted and used to gain differing perspectives on problems or tasks. The acceptance of this diversity improves problem solving, resulting in improved creative and innovative thinking.
  • As self-awareness, empathy and respect between individuals develops the relationship between communicating parties is improved. Risks of negative conflict and the associated costs are vastly reduced or even eliminated.
  • Perhaps the most obvious is that the improved interpersonal relationships within an organisation, function or team ‘oil the wheels’ not just in terms of the effectiveness of the conversations internally, but also the efficiency of the organisation’s outputs themselves. When there is a gap between the values of an organisation and actual behaviours demonstrated by employees, the resulting space is filled with confusion, misunderstandings, tensions and conflict. By focusing on the soft skills development of its people there is a closing of the gap between values and behaviours. The more aligned the two are, the closer the organisation is getting to an everyday environment where problem-solving is free-flowing and innovation is instinctive. Organisations have long thought in terms of the importance of emotional intelligence, and they also need to start thinking about the role of ‘conversational intelligence’.

In order to create a clear air workplace, organisations need to:

  • Identify the basic strengths and weaknesses of current provision in terms of what happens to complaints, whistleblowing, complaint handling, grievance resolution, performance management, absence management and the relevant learning and development. Look at how you manage conflict – at your third-party offerings such as grievance resolvers and mediators. Are your processes integrated? Do you have a continuum of options for people to get support when matters do escalate? Does everyone agree to try and resolve matters at the most local, informal level possible?
  • Assess the gap between values and behaviours in the organisation by measuring the behavioural competency of their teams or functions. Once there has been training or other forms of learning, this gap can be re-assessed to demonstrate progress over time, whether and how levels of conversational intelligence are being embedded;
  • Put more resources into supporting people away from escalating their negative feelings, and towards dialogue with each other. Some managers have the inbuilt skills to manage conflict constructively. Others will need support if they are to have difficult or courageous conversations. Review your management programmes to ensure they include the soft skills involved in embracing positive conflict and defusing negative conflict.
  • Support and train your managers to deal with formal complaints and grievances consistently and fairly; when conflict reaches the formal stages of a grievance or disciplinary hearing, it’s critical that the decisionmakers involved, typically senior managers, are always consistent and untainted by subjective perceptions. No individual should ever be seen to be treated differently from another while also demonstrating the same behaviours. Managers need to have the objectivity and confidence to reach a determination against someone where the evidence leads clearly to that outcome – and sometimes that means training in how to weigh and assess the evidence fairly and consistently;
  • Motivate and train employees to have difficult conversations with each other and with their manager, for example in how to challenge colleagues’ banter or perceived manager’s bullying – skills which can be expanded to include how they respond to difficult situations with the full range of stakeholders working with a department;
  • Make sure there are consistent messages about expectations of line managers and their staff in terms of encouraging open conversations – and make it clear about support and development available; involve leaders as role models who understand what it means to actively encourage ‘good conflict’, supporting opportunities for open conversations, respecting alternative views, building trust, provide opportunities for training in conversation skills.