- Key to resolving conflict is understanding its causes.
- Managing people and potential conflicts is part of the role of SBM.
- Disagreement is a normal part of life, but it is important to recognise when this has developed into a conflict situation.
- The way people react to conflict will influence the end results.
- Well-managed conflict can lead to benefits.
Conflict is: 'A clash or mental struggle resulting from opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.' (www.merriam-webster.com).
Conflict is a part of life. It can have damaging or beneficial effects on a situation and the individuals involved. Knowing how to deal with conflict can be challenging.
Causes of conflict
Understanding the reason why you have found yourself in the middle of an unpleasant situation is key to working towards and reaching a resolution. Some causes of conflict within the workplace are:
- changes to routine
- core values or needs not being met
- ambiguous roles and responsibilities
- lack of empathy
- unfair treatment
- lack of, or poor communication
- exhaustion or saturation
- poor work environment
- lack of competence.
Any of these reasons can materialise in the busy environment of a school, and can impact on the dynamics and productivity of your team. You may be juggling people management with increasing responsibilities in other areas, being a key catalyst driving change and improving work practices, often at a rapid pace. Amid these ever-increasing and changing priorities, it can be hard to keep in mind that each member of your team is an individual with their own needs, drives and wishes that do not automatically mirror your own.
When a team member feels slighted for any reason, it can result in surface-level behaviour that does not actually explain the root cause of the issue. If the issue is not addressed immediately it can quickly escalate, leading to assumptions and miscommunication, causing a conflict situation. That is why understanding why conflict can occur can help to pre-empt, minimise or resolve situations.
What conflict looks like
Disagreements among your team will occur daily, in meetings and discussions as part of finding a resolution to a particular problem. Recognising when a disagreement has moved outside healthy debate to one of conflict is key to addressing and neutralising a potential situation quickly. Conflict behaviour may be displayed through:
- walking away abruptly
- acting bossy
- physical, verbal or emotional abuse.
Most of us can recall situations where the behaviours listed above have occurred. This kind of behaviour may be displayed within your team either by an individual or by a number of staff. If it is directed at you, ask yourself why it is happening before reacting. This will help you to find the root cause and understand the person's behaviour.
When situations are impaired by tit-for-tat conflict behaviour, the initial reason for the disagreement can become difficult to identify or communicate, even by the individual who felt slighted in the first place. The latest round of behaviour becomes the focus of blame.
A small proportion of conflict is due to a difference of opinion, with the majority due to delivery and tone of voice. If the un-derlying reason for conflict is almost always unwittingly hidden, and subsequent behaviour between the two parties involved seems unrelated and reactionary, it is easy to see how conflict can escalate quickly. Additional layers of complexity are created and the issue remains unresolved.
What to do when conflict happens
The way people react to conflict will influence the end results. Resources can be found on the internet (for example, http://www.acas.org.uk and https://www.cipd.co.uk) that give guidance on dealing with conflict, as well as the theory behind that guidance. However, when you find yourself in the midst of a situation, you are unlikely to recall the guidance, let alone the theory, and a hasty response in retaliation is more likely.
If possible, walk away, taking a step back to think through why the conflict may be happening. Then communicate by listening to the other person. Try to do this without interrupting. Try to find out the reason they feel the way they do without using the word 'why', which will illicit a response that starts with 'because' and may lead to further conflict. Show understanding and empathy towards their problem. This will go a long way to reducing defensiveness, as the other person will see that you are making a concerted effort. You should then take the opportunity to present your point of view, again without interruptions, and explain how you feel. Neither of you should feel afraid to ask for further clarification if a better understanding of opinions is needed. If either of you find it too difficult to do this calmly, consider asking a colleague to mediate.
Once you have established the root cause of the conflict, you can then move on to negotiating. Keeping the mediator on board may help with difficult conversations when trying to come up with possible solutions. Difficult as it may be, you may need to accept that a compromise is necessary. Try to avoid resisting this – a willingness to negotiate and compromise shows that you are focused on finding a solution, and not on being right. Search for and choose the fairest solution that will allow you, as closely as possible, to implement the plan you initially had in mind.
Finally, plan to re-evaluate the situation, agree when evaluation will take place and review the conflict situation as whole. Suggest a time in the future when it would be safe to assume that emotions around the conflict have subsided, and when both parties have had time to come to terms with the compromise made and the solution agreed upon. How could such a situation be avoided in the future? What self-development needs were highlighted? What could both parties or individuals benefit from focusing on? Did the solution meet the needs, drives and wishes of everyone involved? Identify what lasting negative and positive outcomes have been experienced.
Benefits of managed conflict
The way conflict is managed can either contribute to a team's failure or add to its productivity. Mismanaged and unmanaged conflict results in underperformance, time wastage, demotivation, lost opportunities, staff replacement, sabotage, restructuring around the problem and absenteeism. On the other hand, if managed effectively, conflict can be harnessed to generate advantages such as:
- encouraging healthy debate
- facilitating a sense of commitment
- increasing the rate of change
- settling any doubts and queries
- improving relationships
- exposing tricky issues.
In future, when faced with the possibility of conflict, try to avoid succumbing to that sinking feeling of 'here we go again' and employing avoidance techniques, mismanaging or reacting too aggressively to the situation. Instead, view it as an opportunity to achieve some potential advantages and to self-evaluate and develop. Deal with it head on, calmly employing a 'communicate, negotiate and evaluate' approach. Focus on quickly identifying and resolving the root cause of the difference of opinion, manag-ing the tone and delivery of your communication throughout, as you negotiate a path towards a solution. Evaluate lessons learnt and the final benefits that have supported improvements to your team.
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
- Handout - Difficult conversations
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