The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Dabell

Healthy conflicts in the workplace

Would you prefer leading a school where everyone agrees or one where there is vigorous but respectful debate? John Dabell discusses the positive outcomes that healthy conflicts can bring.

Schools might strive to sing from the same song sheet and encourage staff to align however, you 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
  • 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. 

Healthy debate and the respectful presentation of opposing views is an approach that almost always leads to better outcomes

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 great for a school. A culture of healthy, productive, and professional disagreement can bring people together and move a school forward. 

A school environment always has plenty to discuss and chew over. This leads to mental pushing and shoving as people need to air their differences and have opportunities to disagree. 

Whether it's task, relationship or process conflict, disagreements can cut across a spectrum of behaviour, from a healthy difference of opinion to serious incidents of bullying or harassment. 

Constructive conflict

But conflict can be a good thing – 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, attacks and posturing so people can disagree without being disagreeable. 

Healthy conflict can bring 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 on the school and not the personal, wonderful things can happen. Diversity of thought contributes to positive solutions. Discussions can still be heated, but because they are grounded in a professional code of dialogue, they allow fresh ideas to surface rather than getting shot down. 

For healthy conflict to happen, school leaders are responsible for engendering a psychologically safe culture where diversity is prized not feared – mutual vulnerability is necessary. 

By its very awkward nature, conflict doesn't mean things are broken, it is a form of communication that allows for creative problem-solving. Differences of opinion are inevitable and useful. What feels dysfunctional need not be dysfunctional (Marc de Rond, 2012).

Conflict culture 

Instead of giving conflict a wide berth, school leaders can create a culture where everyone feels confident to speak their mind safely. 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
  • more creativity
  • disruption to the status quo
  • building commitment
  • better decision-making.

Conflict can comfortably exist and thrive when everyone commits to a professional behaviour code of ethics and conduct. Colleagues will 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 professional learning. 

Professional development training in interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving, and non-defensive communication would benefit all staff as an inset day or as part of diversity and inclusion training. 

Healthy debate and the respectful presentation of opposing views is an approach that almost always leads to better outcomes

Positive conflict training can help all team members develop emotional intelligence and should be a core component in training new teachers. 

By engaging in healthy conflict through collegial conversations staff have opportunities to:

  • debate ideas
  • practice problem-solving
  • learn how their colleagues' express ideas and opposition. 

It 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 are one of the behaviours that support health, wellbeing and engagement and help build and sustain relationships rather than diminish and undermine them.

Agree to disagree or disagree to agree?

Conflict doesn't need nipping in the bud, it needs to be understood and utilised positively. Being conflict-averse can create more problems than it solves.

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, and build on their core strengths and competencies. Who would have thought they could do all this by encouraging conflict through behavioural integrity?

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