Dealing with Conflict

I’ve worked in educational institutions since 1988. My jobs have been in public k-12 schools, public community colleges, and various universities as an adjunct faculty member. In addition, I have participated in (and been a leader of) multiple educational organizations.

Almost all these organizations have been marked by have some level of workplace conflict. In some, the conflict has been institution-wide and top-down. When leaders are narcissistic (which is unfortunately common in education), when they create hostile workplaces, when leaders seek to assert power, or when their philosophies are contrary to the prevailing educational practices, there is going to be more conflict than when there are other leaders who don’t share those characteristics. Sometime the conflict arises when members seek act in ways that leaders do when they nurture conflict.

This conflict is the cause of much teacher burnout. Leaving is one way to temporarily deal with conflict. Leaving is not always an option, however, and leaving is never a permanent solution. If you are fortunate to find an organization or team with little conflict, you can be sure it is temporary.

One skill that I learned over my career was how to avoid conflict. In this post, I describe some of the strategies that seem to have worked for me.

  1. When faced with conflict, don’t make it worse. There are individuals who thrive on conflict. When I find myself in a situation where there is conflict, I stop engaging with the other person (I don’t speak, I avoid eye contact, and avoid nodding my head or other expressions). I do turn the focus to what needs to be done.

    In education, it is easy to focus on what is needed for students. What do we need to do to resolve this for students immediately? is the one question I will work towards when I find myself in a situation marked with conflict. Otherwise, I disengage.

    Example: I recently in a meeting at which an individual had accused their boss of not responding to emails in a timely manner. The boss asked, “has anyone else had this problem?” I did not answer. Any answer would have resulted in me “joining a side” in the conflict. Joining a side is a sure way to enter the conflict. Avoid it!
  2. Be empathetic, without supporting their position. As was suggested in the previous point, conflict is enhanced when you are drawn into one side or the other. It is possible to express empathy without joining the conflict. One of my favorite phrases is “that must be difficult.”

    Example: I worked in a school with a principal who was nurturing conflict. After a few months, there was a small number of faculty who supported the principal and a majority who opposed her. Individuals from each group came into my classroom to vent. “This room is like Switzerland; you are neutral in all of this” was my reputation. No one knew I was one of the primary individuals who was documenting the actions of the principal and was thanked by the lawyers for the details I provided.
  3. See it both ways. While it can be difficult, one way to avoid becoming involved with conflict is to argue both sides or at least understand the conflict from both sides. In many cases one finds the conflict is grounded in differing beliefs about how to accomplish a goal. Once the two sides are clear in your mind, you can decide if you join one side, or perhaps decide you must leave.

    Example: I worked in a middle school that was being dismantled in return to a junior high school model. I had been hired by the middle school teacher for my experience and belief in middle school models. It took a couple of years to realize the change a new principal was implementing. Once it became clear what he was doing, I did not participate in any of the planning committees he convened, and I voiced opposition to the plans. Sure, I did participate in the conflict, but I did it with a clear conscious and supporting my beliefs (although I knew I was doomed to fail). Late in my tenure at the school, the principal called me on the carpet for “not supporting his efforts.” I thanked him for recognizing my efforts. Yes, I did find a new job at the end of that school year.
  4. Be data driven. Conflict arises when folks become emotional. By engaging with those who seek conflict only when you understand the evidence that supports whatever side you support, you can refer to the evidence and reasons rather than emotion. This allows you to you can engage by explaining your stance rather than joining the conflict with emotion.

    Example: I was hired to be the technology coordinator for a district where I was a teacher. The position was to be for an extended school year and for and additional 90 minutes per day beyond the teacher contract. During the hiring process, the assistant superintended was clear about this and indicated the salary would reflect that (about 15% more money for about 20% more work). The superintendent insisted I be paid a teacher’s salary after I was offered the job at the original salary. I initiated a job search immediately and submitted a letter of resignation (giving the warning called for in my contract) about 2 weeks into the position. The superintendent was angry. In my meeting with him, I indicated the difference in salary was the only reason. He claimed it had to be fair to teachers and I pointed out my workday and year was longer that teachers, but I was not paid for that work. Being able to refer to information to support my side I was able to enter a situation prime for conflict but avoid the conflict through evidence.
  5. Pay attention to your “colleagues.” Conflict follows individuals. They may initiate it (for reasons stated above) or they may allow emotion to affect them, or they may be weak users of information and reason. Identify those people and avoid them. When hiring, ask how folks deal with conflict and listen for candidates to articulate their strategies. When being asked to join committees, pay attention to the members. If they have been surrounded by conflict previously avoid joining the committee.

Example: A dean was overseeing the discontinuation of several popular programs. I observed several meetings at which his decisions were challenged, and his did not react well. He refused to answer questions, became emotional when accused of not being transparent, and grew obviously angry when errors in his data were pointed out. In my opinion, he added to the conflict by ignoring others’ interpretations and insisting only he was correct even when his own data contradicted him. He was later promoted at the college, and there was some discussion that a corresponding reorganization would result in me reporting to him. I was fortunate that my boss at the time and I had a strong relationship, and I told her I would immediately resign if I had to report to him. I was fortunate to be in a position where I could both afford to resign and to trust that my boss wanted to keep me, so would oppose the reorganization of my position. While this is a drastic situation, it illustrates the strategy of avoiding those who create conflict.

Conflict is a part of organizations. It arises from many circumstances. We are more productive when we have manageable and positive conflict. There is nothing better than a trusted colleague who challenges you to improve, and who also accepts your challenges to improve.

Other conflict can have negative effect on work and increases stress. A long career depends on identifying and avoiding it. I’ve mange to avoid it through identifying it and avoiding it when possible. When it cannot be avoided, I rely on information and reason when other rely on emotion.