Studies estimate that leaders spend 20–40 percent of their workday lurching from one conflict to the next. As longtime educational administrators, we’ve witnessed every combination of school relationships embroiled in dispute: parent versus teacher, teacher versus teacher, teacher versus building administrator, building administrator versus central office, central office versus board of education.
Conflict makes school leaders feel uncomfortable: Deep, lingering controversy is the product of complex issues for which there are no ready solutions. In today’s polarized education climate, this is contributing to an exodus of principals and superintendents. However, cultures benefit from a proactive approach to conflict management in schools.
Why Administrators Avoid Conflict
Human beings have a propensity to avoid conflict. It’s in our nature when facing adversity: Avoidance is half of the innate fight-or-flight equation. Administrators may also believe the common fallacy about conflict in organizations, where dissension is understood as disruptive and abnormal. We call this the “Three Musketeers Myth,” the assumption that organizations typically operate according to the principle “One for all, and all for one.”
If conflict is presumed to be a sign of dysfunction, then leaders mistakenly believe their job is to steer clear. But when conflict is neglected, it doesn’t simply disappear. Dissension continues to roil below the surface, resulting in damage to school climate. Left ignored, faculty stress reaches unsustainable levels, a toxic environment takes hold, and there is knee-jerk resistance to school reform as opponents invariably square off.
Fear of conflict can leave school administrators reluctant to engage critical issues, such race and income inequities. Amanda E. Diamond and John B. Lewis, in their case study of a Chicago-area high school titled Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, chronicled how students, parents, teachers, administrators and board members all recognized racial disparity in Advanced Placement admission criteria and other inequities. Yet, to avoid conflict, leaders continued to follow the path of least resistance.
4 Steps of Skillful Conflict Management
While avoidance might be an understandable reaction, skillfully managed conflict can benefit schools by improving the ability of stakeholders to work together toward shared goals and establishing a culture in which people can disagree without becoming disagreeable. We’ve observed schools transforming dissent into opportunity and engaging substantive issues once leaders cure their debilitating cases of conflict aversion. The following are some effective remedies based on our experience and literature from the fields of engineering, organizational psychology, and peace studies.
1. Begin by picking low-hanging fruit. Conflict avoidance in schools is anticipatory; it’s a foreboding yet unrealized expectation of deleterious outcomes. Conflict aversion also derives from a limited skill set; avoidance is eminently understandable if an administrator hasn’t learned how to manage dissent. This leads to the concept of beginning by picking the low-hanging fruit. By first prioritizing less provocative or heated issues, both the conflict-avoidant administrator and the school community gain confidence and trust in the collaborative problem-solving process. Skills grow under these relatively safe circumstances, and the previously avoidant administrator experiences positive outcomes.
For example, addressing friction over student discipline and its impact on school climate might simply begin with the creation of a form to collect data on infractions and consequences, providing a noncontroversial foundation for future discussion.
2. Exercise conflict agility muscles. Like any skill, the ability of a group to collaboratively problem-solve improves with regular practice. Seth routinely began faculty meetings with a 10-minute “Good of the Community” protocol, in which teachers could raise schoolwide issues and problem-solve collaborative solutions on the spot. With practice resolving a range of issues, from student behavior in the hallways to low attendance at the holiday party, trust among staff members escalated, and they became more adept at considering increasingly thorny quandaries.
Lots of well-structured committee work expands opportunities to tone conflict-agility muscles. For example, search committees consisting of faculty and parents that were convened to identify promising teacher candidates led to rich discussions and consensus around the school’s curriculum goals and instructional practices.
3. Turn inward in order to turn outward. In emotion-laden conflicts, school leaders often become the target of other people’s frustration, leading to personal attacks. In such instances, school leaders need to adopt a reflective mindset, or Keep Calm and Principal On. The first step when confronting a dispute is, as conflict resolution experts Craig E. Runde and Tim A. Flanagan advise, to “slow down, cool down.”
Conflict stimulates a stress response: Adrenaline and cortisol course through the bloodstream, and the sensation of anxiety and feeling threatened clouds rational thought. By first turning inward, leaders give themselves space to counteract the physiological reaction. There is a straightforward prescription: Take a step back; inhale a deep breath; silently repeat a personal mantra; and offer a neutral comment, such as, “That’s very interesting.” After a momentary pause, a leader is able to perceive the context more objectively and follow a key principle of Conflict Resolution 101: Don’t take it personally.
4. Assume an inquiry stance. The most intractable systemic issues require a long-term commitment to understanding root causes and brainstorming truly novel solutions. The design thinking approach to problem-solving suggests beginning by developing an “empathetic” and comprehensive understanding of the problem. Rather than attacking one another’s personalities and motives, as people are wont to do, the initial role of the leader is to focus group inquiry on what people are saying, doing, thinking, and feeling about underlying complex problems using hard and soft data.
For example, Jamila Dugan and Shane Safir’s Street Data method recommends gathering data from the ground up, beginning with stories, artifacts, and observations from people who are directly impacted, then examining the information, in addition to more traditional sources, to derive meaning. In contrast with avoiding conflict, an inquiry stance embraces an issue in its intricacies, diverse perspectives, and broad landscape, while building a foundation for healthy, ongoing dialogue.
Administrators can transform conflict into a constructive growth opportunity in a school community that values open, honest, and respectful conversation. That’s a cultural change that begins with the notion that embracing, rather than avoiding, challenges is an essential step in the process of continuous school improvement. With a firm, shared, and lasting commitment to conflict agility, schools can break the cycle of conflict avoidance and embark on a path to consequential change. As James Baldwin observed, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.”