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Managing conflict in school leadership teams

Identifying healthy and unhealthy behaviors is key to collaboration
Elena Aguilar has been a teacher, coach and leader in education for over 20 years. She is the author of the forthcoming "The Art of Coaching Teams."
Elena Aguilar has been a teacher, coach and leader in education for over 20 years. She is the author of the forthcoming "The Art of Coaching Teams."

If you are a team leader—a department head, grade-level lead, coach or an administrator—chances are high that conflict makes you nervous.

It makes most of us nervous, and when we’re in a position of leadership, there’s an implicit understanding that we’re supposed to do something about conflict. We may even worry that we contributed to or caused the conflict.

I want to make something clear: It is your role to address unhealthy conflict in a team you lead or facilitate. Your primary role as a leader is to attend to your team members’ dynamics with each other and to build a constructive culture.

Without a healthy team culture, you probably won’t get into the kinds of conversations that make a big difference for students because those conversations are challenging ones in which conflict will most likely surface. That said, let me offer you some ways to manage unhealthy conflict in teams that you lead.

Name the conflict

Because many of us are afraid of conflict, we hide in denial of its existence. The first step is to acknowledge that there’s conflict in a team you lead, and to name it. It helps to label the conflict a communication dynamic rather than blaming it on individuals.

There’s a difference between thinking, “James is so resistant to new ideas,” and “James makes declarative statements that put an end to discussions.”

Once you’ve identified the conflict in the team, then you’ll need to name it with the group. Sometimes you may need to name it for them, and sometimes they’ll identify the conflict.

A team may experience conflict because the personalities of individuals are very different from each other or because they disagree on goals or actions. Identifying the sources of conflict can help to depersonalize it. Sources of dispute can also include a shortage of resources or time, organizational politics, and organizational dysfunction.

Following norms

Ideally, your team has some norms, or community agreements, for how members will behave with each other. Ideally, these help to prevent unhealthy conflict. When a norm is broken, you can remind the team of these standards and identify the impact on the team when one isn’t adhered to.

Sometimes it’s useful to name how the unproductive behavior is affecting the group by saying, for example, “We need everyone to contribute and share their thoughts so that we can be sure we’re making the best decision. If we don’t make good decisions, we’re less likely to get full commitment from each other. Let’s be mindful of giving everyone the full time they need to express their thoughts.”

It’s not all unhealthy

Conflict can be healthy and unhealthy. Most of us are familiar with the unhealthy kind, but what does healthy conflict look and sound like? One leadership team I worked with identified the following as indicators that their team was engaging in healthy conflict:

  • We wrestle with ideas.
  • We ask questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • We change our minds.
  • We demonstrate curiosity.
  • We hold student needs at the center of our work.

This kind of conflict can lead to deep discussions that positively impact students. Having a discussion with a team about the role that healthy conflict can play can help mediate unhealthy disagreements and set the team on a powerful path.

As team leaders, rather than just stopping certain behaviors, our role is to turn unhealthy behaviors into positive dynamics. Such an intention has transformational potential. DA

Elena Aguilar has been a teacher, coach and leader in education for over 20 years. She is the author of the forthcoming The Art of Coaching Teams, from which this article is excerpted.

District Administration welcomes the insights and opinions of educators and administrators on all topics. If you would like to contribute a guest column, please contact Tim Goral at tgoral@promediagrp.com.