8.30.2011

How Do School Administrators Successfully Resolve Conflicts?

Conflict is an inevitable by-product of human relations. Having the ability to deal with conflict requires many personal skills, as well as a flair for honesty, consistency, and tact. As a school leader, many administrators get stuck in the middle of conflict simply by virtue of their position. For example, the principal leads a school building, but also serves as an intermediary between the wishes of the district and her teachers and students. When the district promotes an unpopular ruling or program to the district, it is up to the principal, whether the leader is in agreement or not, to promote the new program to faculty and staff as part of the "buy-in" process.

Conflict works both ways. As the person between the district administration and the staff, having to ability to work through the inherent conflicts and keep the building moving forward is like walking a tightrope. The best leaders tend to walk this rope best by remembering one important guideline. It is not always the smartest person who accomplishes the most, but the person who has, what author Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence” that can maintain an even keel and be productive when all signs are showing the threat of impending chaos in ones building.

Before breaking the topic in half between dealing with superordinates and subordinates, I would like to look at a general theory on conflict resolution. In their book Supervision and Instructional Leadership, authors Carl Glickman, Stephen Gordon, and Jovita Ross-Gordon advance a five-step system designed to handle conflict among individuals. To preface, the writers suggest that the leader keep the disagreement focused on the ideas rather than the personalities, and this makes perfect sense. I believe this procedure works regardless of whom one is dealing with as a school leader; the difference comes in the importance of the role the leader can play within this procedure. The procedure works as follows:
·         Ask each member to state his or her conflicting position
·         Ask each member to restate the other’s position
·         Ask each member if conflict still exists
·         Ask for underlying value positions: Why do they still stick to their positions?
·         Ask other members of the group (if possible) if there is a third position that synthesizes, compromises, or transcends the conflict. If not, reclarify the various positions. Acknowledge that there exists no apparent reconciliation, and move the discussion to other matters. (p. 335)

These authors put this formula into a group meeting situation, but it can work between two people, if both people are willing to be honest and open, and follow each step.

Interpersonal relationships are extremely important in the school leader role. While it is necessary to have ones staff working in harmony with each other, the better reason for solving conflict when it occurs is to keep the flow of information running up and down the hierarchical ladder. A breakdown in communication is usually the first by-product of an unresolved conflict.

In light of my philosophical beliefs, the next step is to differentiate between how to deal with mediating conflict during dealings with superordinates and subordinates, because the two groups require a different set of strategies. This is because of the school leader’s position in relation to both of these groups.

By definition, superordinates are our superiors, so a cautious approach must be met when dealing with situations of conflict. Although I would be in a leadership role, it would still not be as important as the role of the individual I am having the conflict with; therefore, respect for ones position, as well as respect for my own subordinate position has to be recognized during all phases. Of course, I wish to make my point, be listened to, and find a resolution to the problem. But, I do not wish to upset, or offend my superordinate. This could lead to problems in other areas, such as getting promoted in the future. Who wants to promote a person that is difficult and doesn’t work with the team? In short, there are very few leaders willing to do so.

A calm demeanor and a rational sense of being come in handy when dealing with bosses. The first thing to keep in mind is that everyone is on the same team. When one needs help as a leader, he cannot always ask  subordinates. The superordinate is the person that helps the leader, and this has to be kept in mind.

On the other side of the fence, a leader relies on subordinates to make life easier. Any conflict management has to be solved without making showing too much authority. Teamwork leads to a happier working environment in the future than “puffing ones chest” and reminding all of the subordinates who is in charge.

Authors Snowden and Gorton, last mentioned in the community liaison section, also offer up some interesting opinions in their School Leadership and Administration text. In the conflict management chapter, the pair breaks down conflict management into two parts – the effort to prevent or resolve disagreement, and the effort to initiate conflict because of the need to take an unpopular stand or introduce changes. One example of this would be when a school leader has to take action against a popular, but low performing teacher.

Snowden and Gorton examine four ways of dealing with conflict. The first is the cooperative approach, which emphasizes the stressing of mutual group goals and understanding others’ views. Second is the confirming approach, and this stresses the importance of communicating mutual respect for the competence of the group members. My philosophy matches with these two approaches and disagrees with the other two advanced – the competitive approach, where someone must win and someone must lose, and finally, the avoidance approach where withdrawal from discussing problems or settling differences leads to a negative situation. (p. 98) Most results of research studies confirm that the first two approaches have been found to be the most effective.

There is also useful information on conflict management philosophy from a pamphlet offered by Rachelle Lamb on behalf of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Titled, Communication Basics, An Overview of Nonviolent Communication, the 24 page handout centers around themes, which are designed to “facilitate rich and meaningful connections with ourselves and others.” (p. 2) It looks at conflict management from an emotional point of view. While the concept may sound unusual, I read this and put many of its tenets into my own philosophy, and believe that it works with superordinates as well as subordinates. Lamb begins her observation of communication with short pieces on alienating language, choosing our responses, and focusing our attention, better known as listening. I believe that a centerpiece of philosophy in dealing with conflict has to focus on being the best listener that one can possibly be. The two most important words to help resolve any conflict are “I understand.”

Lamb also introduces us to the NVC model. The NVC (or Nonviolent Communication) model focuses on four steps. The first is observation, or stating clearly what a person is saying or doing that is or isn’t enriching life without using words that evaluate, judge, label, analyze or criticize.

The second step deals with feelings. Here one connects with and expresses what is alive in us using words that accurately describe the emotions and sensations we are experiencing. A third step looks at needs, and this occurs when one connects with the met or unmet need or value that is the source of the feelings. Finally, the final step is requests, which is when we ask for that which would enrich life. (p. 9)

Lamb also has sound advice on topics such as expressing empathy, anger, and gratitude.  

As a school leader, one can see the value in using the beliefs of nonviolent communication as a conflict manager. Far too often, the wrong word to a person can change the tone of a conversation or conflict resolution quickly. Coupled with the wrong non-verbal communications, this can lead to disaster in a conflict situation.

A final piece of conflict management philosophy would draw on some thoughts provided by an article, which comes from a 2006 article in Psychology Today and titled Criticism: Taking the Hit. Since most conflict management deals with negative feedback being directed by both parties at each other, it would make sense to base some part of my philosophy on the ability to deal with negative criticism, and use this ability as an advantage. Dr. Judith Sills, a psychologist, wrote this article and she prefaces her thoughts with an abstract thought which can be paraphrased by noting that learning to use negative feedback to your own advantage is “a sign that you’re moving up.” (p. 61)

In her essay, Dr. Sills hones in on one non-verbal tactic that I would find priceless when added to my repertoire of conflict management skills. This tactic is the “public smile.” I especially like the comment made as being Rule Number One when facing criticism, which is, sit back and take it in. The public smile is not a response; in fact, it is not even a defense. However, it shows that the person is listening and regardless of outrage, is communicating that thought back to the speaker. It also helps to dissolve the potential anger of the speaker. Having the ability to pull off the public smile is truly a valuable gift to have, as well as a difficult technique to develop.

There are certain things  to take into consideration as a leader when dealing with conflict resolution with superiors, as well as subordinates. While an understanding of one's position in the conflict has to be understood, many of the same techniques can be used to work through the various conflicts, and lead to a productive resolution.