Healthy conflicts in the workplace
Would you prefer to be leading a school where everyone is in agreement, or one where there is vigorous but respectful debate?
Schools might strive to sing from the same song sheet and encourage staff to align but you will rarely have harmony.
A school community is not a single, unified entity composed of like-minded people but a rich mix of personalities, egos and characters with a wide range of perspectives, beliefs, prejudices, loyalties and ambitions.
There will always be flash points, arguments, conflicts and tensions within any organisation (Cumberland, 2020) but sparks flying isn’t necessarily a ‘bad’ thing.
Schools need divergent opinions and competing alternatives with differences in background experience and views because it can lead to fresh insights and perspectives. Without cognitive conflict and confrontation, you have “groupthink,” which discourages innovation.
Some types of conflict can be good for a school and a culture of healthy, productive and professional disagreement can bring people together and move a school forward.
In a school environment there is always plenty to discuss and chew over. This leads to a certain amount of mental pushing and shoving and that is to be encouraged as people need to air their differences and have opportunities to disagree.
Whether it is task conflict, relationship conflict or process conflict, disagreements can cut across a wide spectrum of behaviour, from a healthy difference of opinion to serious incidents of bullying or harassment.
But conflict can be a good thing if it is minus the unhealthy emotions, toxic tantrums and big feelings that can muddy conversations and derail mutual respect in a flash. Meetings and conversations need to be no-go zones for personal agendas, personal attacks and posturing so people can disagree without being disagreeable.
Can conflict be a good thing?
When conflict is healthy it can bring a positive energy to relationships, ignite new ways of thinking, and instigate change. It stretches boundaries, keeps everyone on their toes and challenges the status quo.
So yes, let people jostle and argue but at the heart of what people are talking about must be in the best interests of the school community.
When eyes are fixed on the school and not on the personal, great things can happen. Diversity of thought contributes to positive solutions.
Discussions can still be heated and feisty but because they are grounded in a professional code of dialogue they allow fresh ideas to surface rather than being shot down in flames.
For healthy conflict to take place, school leaders have the responsibility for engendering a psychologically safe culture where diversity is prized not feared; mutual vulnerability is a must.
Teams need an environment in which to speak freely, have courageous conversations and accept discord.
Although by its very nature awkward, conflict does not mean there is a problem and things are broken, it is a form of communication that allows for creative problem-solving. Differences of opinion are inevitable and useful and what feels dysfunctional need not be dysfunctional (Marc de Rond, 2012).
Instead of giving conflict a wide berth, school leaders can create a culture in which everyone is confident to speak their mind safe in the knowledge that their contributions are respected and appreciated.
Fostering a healthy conflict culture is a sign of trust and security, it invites diverse points of view, allows for more creativity, invites disruption to the status quo, builds commitment and supports better decision-making.
Conflict can comfortably exist and thrive when everyone commits to a professional behaviour code of ethics and conduct. This allows colleagues to excel in their environment and enrich the school.
This will be expected via the Teachers’ Standards and leaders should draw attention to these as a ‘way of being’ to promote partnership, enquiry and professional learning. Leaders may want to add to this guidance to make explicit reference to conflict and dialogue so that it is clear the level of practice at which all staff are expected to perform.
How can we accept conflict?
Professional development training in interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and non-defensive communication would greatly benefit all staff as part of an inset day or as part of diversity and inclusion training. Positive conflict training can help all team members develop emotional intelligence and this should be a core component in the training of new teachers.
Whether it is part of professional development and review (PDR) cycles, staff meetings, team meetings or one-to-ones, conflict is something to be embraced.
By engaging in healthy conflict through collegial conversations staff have opportunities to debate ideas, practice problem solving, and learn how their colleagues’ express ideas and opposition.
This will help all staff learn positive methods of conflict resolution and communication and initiate and engage in professional dialogue in a range of forums and contexts.
Creative friction and constructive conflict based on respect is one of the behaviours that supports health, wellbeing and engagement and helps to build and sustain relationships rather than diminish and undermine them.
Key to this is remaining respectful, staying polite and maintaining a positive outlook.
Conflict doesn’t need nipping in the bud, it needs to be understood and utilised positively. It is necessary for true involvement and empowerment. It brings people and issues into the open and can sharpen insights into goals.
Don’t shy away from it
Being conflict-averse can create more problems than it solves. A school culture that embraces disagreements creates a safe space for sharing ideas so improves communication by developing a foundation to manage differences.
Promoting a healthy conflict culture doesn’t mean encouraging colleagues to go picking arguments with their colleagues but facilitating a safe, secure and transparent environment to disagree and take risks.
Effective schools welcome people who rock the boat to people who jump out because without conflict there is no growth. Conflict is the “sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity”, it arouses intelligence, it brings about invention and it is “the gadfly of thought” (John Dewey).
Healthy debate and the respectful presentation of opposing views is an approach that almost always leads to better outcomes.
The challenge for school leaders is to help their staff to grow, develop, build on their core strengths and competencies. Who would have thought they could do all this by encouraging conflict through behavioural integrity?
About the author
John is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books, and contributed over 1,000 articles and features to various educational bodies. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru, sharing insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.