Promoting Healthy Conflict

I think we’ve all been there in that staff meeting where an idea was raised and though you disagree, everyone else seems to be in favour of it so you stay silent.  Or worse….you leave the meeting and find out you weren’t the only one who disagreed but none of you spoke up.  If only someone had just said something……

My school team has been working with the book “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” written by Patrick Lencioni.  He’s talking about a corporate team in the book but the principles are easily applied to any school team as well.

One of the quotes in the book reads, “Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution.”

Lencioni argues in his book that it’s only teams that can hear all the voices in the room (those in agreement, those in apathy, and those in disagreement) that can really make a decision about what’s best for them.

Too many times I’ve seen staff meetings where decisions are made and then find people grumbling about it in back corners.  It builds friction on your staff, it begins to break down your team, and ultimately you have a bunch of unhappy people working at your school.  Many of us operate under the notion that if we say something negative we’re going to be seen as the person causing trouble or we risk opening ourselves to criticism.   What is the result of this?  Your school may have come a to a decision about something but it won’t be supported by everyone on board.

I think back to a time when it was decided as a staff that we would participate in silent reading time.  Everyone would read at the beginning of the school day.  It was discussed briefly at a staff meeting but the principal made it clear that this was important to him and that it WOULD be taking place.  And so the decision was made.

What happened?

It went great…..for about two weeks.  Then some teachers began to let kids do homework during reading time.  Other teachers simply said “Forget it, I’m starting my class anyways.”  When kids started pushing back and saying they didn’t want to read, some teachers shrugged and said, “Fine, whatever,” and gave in….because it wasn’t important to them.  The result?  The whole thing fell apart in about four months.  We had a sign on the door of our school that said we were a “Reading School.”  We had to have it removed.

When the issue was raised again this year I was very leery.  Our focus is on literacy and our admin asked us to revisit the idea of returning to the time when we were a “reading school.”  I voiced my disagreement.  I did this because of three reasons.

1.  TRUST: After working with the book, our school has established a very good sense of trust.  We EXPECT that staff members will raise their voices up if they disagree about what is going on.  If someone is muttering under their breathe we hold them accountable to speak up and give voice to their opposition.  Lencioni says the first dysfunction of a team is, “an absence of trust among the team members.”

2.  ABSENCE OF A FEAR OF CONFLICT:  Since I felt I trusted my staff to listen to my voice without judging me, I knew I could avoid the second dysfunction, “Fear of Conflict.”  If you have people who are ‘yes men’ then it feels as though you have harmony on your team and that you make decisions quickly, but take a long hard look at how long it takes before they fall apart because someone is being sneaky and underhanded about how they will oppose you and tear it to pieces.  I didn’t like the idea of being a “reading school” again and I knew I needed to make my concerns clear.

3.  PRIOR EXPERIENCE:  I had lived through this once before.  It’s not that I didn’t like the idea of being a reading school, it’s that I didn’t like what happened on staff before.  The conversations behind people’s backs, the teachers who passively defied the idea by simply refusing to do it, the hurt feelings on staff for those of us who believed in the program and watched it burn into ashes.  I voiced my concerns and my memories from the first time.  There was a lot of head nodding around the room from those who lived it with me and those new to our staff.

The result?  Our admin helped us to define the action plan together as a team.  We all agreed that though some on staff might not agree with it wholeheartedly opportunities to have your voice heard were present, ALL voices were considered, and then in the end a decision was made about what was best for our school.  As a staff we have committed to always doing what is best for our team and ultimately that means what is best for our students.

We are now a reading a school again.  Here we are in mid-January and the program is running strong.  It takes places for the first 20 minutes of the day and every kid from K-12 participates as well as the staff.  No hiccups, no glitches, everyone has buy in.

Why?  Because it was a team decision.  Did everyone like it?  No, but since we all agree to support each other that means that we give that support even if we don’t agree.  The chance to raise a voice is often all anyone needs.

Conflict on staff is a good thing.  It opens the floor so that everyone can feel as though they have been heard and they don’t have to hide.  If the conflict is deep, respectful, and meaningful then the decision your produce will have much better buy in and support from the team.  This results in a strong team that makes strong decisions.

If you are an administrator or are considering a role within administration I highly recommend you take a look at “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.”  Well worth the read.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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2 Responses to Promoting Healthy Conflict

  1. Excellent post, Cherra-Lynne. Nurturing a school climate that invites dialogue really is critical. I love the observation that it doesn’t necessarily lead to consensus, but it does lead to cooperation.

  2. Thanks 🙂 Lencioni would argue that you don’t really want consensus anyways and that any leader who has a team that always arrives at consensus should be wary.

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