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Managing Staff Conflict

If there is conflict between staff members it will be left to the principal to come to a solution, first of all slow it down, and meet with the combatants face to face.

As I reflect on over twenty years as a principal in four schools, staff matters consumed a significant amount of time and effort and can cause major grief. Staff relationships, performance, managing conflict, ensuring engagement, and alignment with the school’s values are some of the areas that consumed my energy.

As I reflect on the successful times, the following ten (10) strategies work best for me.

1 Breathe, breathe, breathe. Then work out how to resolve the conflict. Take your time planning your management of the matter. Seek input/advice from your most trusted executive. Seek ongoing guidance from your HR coach/ consultant or team member. You are seeking advice, not asking someone to run the show for you. And seek legal advice if it is appropriate for the context.

2 Address the issue privately. This allows all parties involved the chance to express their feelings and intentions in a safe environment and prevents bystanders from getting needlessly involved. Spend some time with the protagonists to understand the issues and concerns. Get the full context. This can be time-consuming and draining, but it is time well spent in the early stages of managing the conflict for a successful outcome.

3 Determine the most appropriate approach to deal with the issue. Deciding whether this should be done within the office – typically the best choice, especially in work-related matters – or outside of the office – over lunch, coffee or a walk. Regardless, ensuring that the chosen approach is appropriate for the issue and the people involved is important. Don’t use emails to try and resolve the conflict. Always use face-to-face meetings with factual notes taken of the meeting outcomes.

4 Create an opening for communication so that everyone can have their say. Once an approach is decided on to address the conflict, give the individual or everyone involved a chance to have their say. Frame the conversation by stating that a conflict occurred and reinforcing the fact that everyone should have the opportunity to express their understanding and feelings about the situation – and then allow each person to have that chance.

5 Step back and let them have their say individually, with no interruptions, outbursts or judgment. Allowing everyone to be heard can often clear the air right from the start – and then you can dive into the issue itself. Have a set of guidelines or parameters, such as remaining respectful.

6 Use active listening techniques when addressing the conflict. Giving feedback as you listen, using small encouragements to show you’re listening, and restating the issues – as well as pausing between statements – can be powerful ways to let someone else know you’re listening and engaged.

7 Repeat back your understanding of the issues. While this is one of the major features of active listening, it deserves a callout of its own. As principals, we all perceive things differently, and, unfortunately, our communication methods have yet to evolve to beaming our thoughts into each other’s heads at will. Taking every step to avoid a misunderstanding is important, especially in conflict resolution.

8 Lean into the silence in difficult conversations. Our instinct can be to fill the silence when there’s a gap in the conversation, especially if that silence is awkward or difficult. In conflict resolution, that silence is very different. Dig into those silences when having a difficult conversation so that the others involved can reflect and consider their responses. Allow time for everyone to carefully consider questions or start statements that can be difficult for them.

9 Understand when it’s out of your hands. Regardless of our efforts and conflict resolution prowess, there might be situations where there is no resolution that a principal can bring to the table. If a situation is too messy or difficult to resolve on your level, it’s time to realise it should be brought to the next step. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, so know when to escalate.

10 Follow up with a close-out conversation, email or call. It’s nice to close out conflict resolution with a private follow-up conversation in the most appropriate manner. Restate the resolution that was come to, thank the individual for their involvement and communication in resolving things, and offer to be on hand for any future issues, thoughts or conversations they might want to have in the future. This helps make sure everyone is accepting of the place you’ve come to and knows that the conflict has passed.

The most important component in staff accountability is fluid, ongoing feedback through ethical conversations as soon as an issue arises. Don’t wait for a system, cycle, or formal feedback loop; act when you have the information. How you act becomes critical if your management of the process is to be effective.