Managing Workplace Conflict

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Conflict is, from time to time, an inescapable part of people's lives at home, at work and in their communities. Each person has opinions, feelings, needs and ideas that are inevitably different from the next person's. How these differences are dealt with is important.
Some conflict can be used as an agent for positive change. Some conflict is at such a low level that we accept it as an irritating part of life, whereas more serious conflict, if ignored, can develop to a point where it causes irreparable damage.
Conflict becomes an issue when the causes are not dealt with appropriately. This leads to a breakdown in communication. This can be between the board of trustees and the principal, the staff and the principal, staff and parents, as well as between individual staff members. If the conflict is between yourself and other/s, you will need to decide whether it would be advisable to bring in a facilitator to help resolve it.
NZEI Te Riu Roa support for principals
It is important to clarify that, in a dispute with a staff member, where you, as principal, are in an employer role, that NZEI cannot represent you or give industrial advice. In this event, you should seek industrial advice and support through STA. However personal professional support is available through the counselling service and counsellors can provide such support and may also refer you to the principal's network.
To minimise conflict everyone involved needs to know and agree on their different roles, responsibilities, expectations and ways of working together. The communication needs to be open enough to allow the parties to express themselves fully and be heard.
Resolving conflict
As principal, you will be called upon to help resolve conflict between staff, and between staff and parents, and it helps to:

  • act promptly before the situation escalates and more people become involved
  • remember that it is a situation rather than a person or persons to blame
  • learn some ways to deal effectively with resolving differences.

A previous chapter in this kit has provided information to help deal with complaints, discipline and competency. It is essential when dealing with these matters that principals work through the procedures in the relevant employment agreement.
This chapter deals briefly with some of the skills needed to deal effectively with conflict from day to day and a process that can be followed to sort out issues that have become serious.
Process to deal with conflict
The following process is recommended in Workplace Leadership by Gordon P. Rabey (Dunmore Press 1997):

  • Arrange a meeting on neutral ground, free from interruption.
  • Deal with the emotional aspects of the conflict first. When the tension is reduced, ask them to restate what they think is the problem and what caused it.
  • If you see the problem differently from your perspective, then identify the differences so that you can both examine them. Avoid emotive words. Distinguish between facts and opinions. Disclose your own feelings.
  • Try to define the problem in terms of needs rather than looking for solutions. Identify common ground. Establish facts. Agree on a joint objective.
  • Move into collaborative problem solving.
    • Explore all possible options 
    • Select the option that will best meet the needs of both parties 
    • Agree who will do what, where, how and by when 
  • Follow up to ensure that what should have happened met your agreed objective. 

Further assistance

NZEI Te Riu Roa staff and Membership support teams contact 0800 NZEI Help (0800 893 443

NZEI Te Riu Roa membership education programmes are designed to assist members in these matters contact 0800 NZEI Help (0800 893 443.

Other useful resources are:

The eight essential steps to conflict resolution: preserving relationships at work, at home, and in the community
WEEKS, Dudley New York, NY G.P.Putnam's Sons, 1994.

The conflict partnership process with Dr Dudley Weeks: skills for resolving conflict and building relationship
WEEKS, Dudley (video)Wellington, NZ: Legal Resources Trust, 1997

Managing disagreement constructively: conflict management in organizations
KINDLER, Herbert S Menlo Park, Californa: Crisp Publications, Fifty Minute Book Series, 1996