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April 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 7

Constructive Conflict

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Social-emotional learning
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The reality principals confront in schools today is often quite different from the idyllic vision of teachers, parents, and administrators working together for the common good of children. Studies suggest leaders spend 20 to 40 percent of a typical workday managing conflict (Chan et al., 2007; Johnson, 2003). A recent Education Week (2019) poll of educators identified numerous sources of friction between teachers and administrators, including: handling of student discipline, supervisory feedback, instructional philosophies, parent issues, and working conditions such as schedules and extracurricular duty assignments. Principals are buffeted by parents disputing discipline decisions or grades and claims that homework is either too challenging … or too sparse. Curriculum initiatives, such as the Common Core standards or, more recently, adaptations for remote learning, spark backlash and division that often land on the principal's doorstep.
The 2016 National Teacher and Principal Survey found that 16 percent of school leaders either "somewhat agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "the stress and disappointments involved with being a principal at this school aren't really worth it" (NCES, 2018). Even more concerning were the results of a follow-up study finding that, among those doubting whether the job was worth it, 13.3 percent had left the principalship within a year, while another 7.5 percent transferred to another school.
In our experience as longtime school principals and (for Robert) a district superintendent, we've realized that when school leaders complain about the job, the frustration invariably pertains to conflict. Shoho and Barnett's questionnaire (2010) administered to new principals reached a similar conclusion, ranking conflict with teachers, staff members, and parents "the least enjoyable" part of the job (p. 579). It's not what school leaders signed up for.
And yet, if administrators are to exercise instructional leadership and instill a shared vision, they must be prepared to deal with inevitable resistance and discord. Our nation's long-standing and tragic reluctance to confront systemic racism and inequity in schools partially reflects a fear of unleashing tensions. Difficult conversations about critical race theory, institutional power relationships, implicit bias, and inequitable outcomes necessitates that skilled leaders must be able to mitigate conflict.

The Three Responses to Conflict

From reviewing research on conflict management and our own experience leading schools, we've identified that leaders have three classic responses to discord. We call them the 3 "A's." The first two are avoidance and attack. Avoidance is not necessarily a bad option; we're all familiar with the wisdom of the adage about "picking your battles." However, if principals embrace a guise of collegiality and friendliness to evade substantive—and often uncomfortable—dialogue, they may fail to resolve deep-rooted issues and build school capacity for problem-solving. We recall a colleague who once remarked, "Show me a school where they join hands and sing 'Kumbaya' at faculty meetings, and I'll show you a school that has mediocre performance."
In the case of attack, the weapons of choice in school include institutional threats, punishments and rewards (such as teaching schedules, extracurricular stipends, year-end ratings), and an "us-vs-them" mindset that delegitimizes differences. In the Education Week survey cited earlier, 30 percent of teachers characterized their school's working and learning environment as "somewhat" or "completely negative." The study found discrepancies between teachers' and principals' perceptions of fairness dispensed in feedback, class assignments, and other common interactions. Most of us can shake our heads recalling encounters with a combative bad boss—and chances are, we didn't stay at that job for very long.
Whether the response to conflict is avoidance or attack, the impact is the same. Dissension does not simply vanish if it is ignored or driven underground.
In our view, the third "A"—addressing conflict—builds school improvement capacity, honors the voices of all stakeholders, and empowers principals. Patrick Lencioni's (2002) bestseller, Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, designated "fear of conflict" or failing to recognize the power of "productive conflict in order to grow," as one of the most common organizational maladies (p. 202). Many school leaders turn away from conflict and never realize its potential for promoting growth rather than disorder.
We use the term conflict-agility to describe a set of leadership strategies that reduce strife while harnessing conflict in the service of improving educational outcomes and relationships. Conflict-agility is like a muscle: conditioning requires continuous practice, and it can be strengthened through specific leadership exercises.
Conflict-agility necessitates language that on one hand depersonalizes conflict, and on the other hand respects everyone involved. The language a leader uses to frame an issue has critical implications and consequences. For example:
  • "That's an interesting idea" signals to the group that ideas, not personalities, will be the subject of discussion.
  • "We'll look backwards for a few minutes, but mostly we'll look ahead" leaves space to share past experience and emotional baggage, but prioritizes productive, forward-thinking solutions.
  • "Let's clarify what the issue is—and what the issue isn't" highlights agreement while identifying the particular issue that needs more focus.
  • "You're doing what you should be doing, advocating for your child (or representing your union members)" honors motives and normalizes disagreement.

Building Conflict Agility

Several strategies can help tone your school community's conflict-agility muscles. Collectively, the school's or the school leader's strategies apply well-established attributes of conflict reduction: They build trust, create win-win situations, and engender a culture that is accepting of multiple voices.

Drop the Defenses

Faced with criticism, a school leader's natural response is to become defensive, implicitly creating an "us-vs-them" and "win-lose" situation. You and I are opponents; only one of us can be right. Instead, adopt a nonjudgmental, genuinely inquisitive stance. Runde and Flanagan, in Developing Your Conflict Competence: A Hands-On Guide for Leaders, Managers, Facilitators, and Teams (2010), advise beginning with two steps: cooling down (being aware of your potential to become angry), and slowing down (taking a step back to view the big picture).
Say a parent calls to complain about a disciplinary consequence, or a teacher objects to a year-end performance rating. Instead of reacting quickly with a justification, first breathe deeply, consider there may be underlying concerns, and then try these replies: "That's interesting, tell me more," or "This is what I understand you are saying—let me know if that's accurate." If you anticipate an incendiary meeting, require each group to remain silent for 10 minutes while they listen to the other side, then allow only clarifying questions to follow-up. The objective is to listen attentively and absorb everyone's perspective. A leader's responsibility is to foster this trait in the entire school community, so it will be practiced whether or not the leader is present.

First Things First

Before we acquired conflict-agility, our tendency as administrators was to first advance our leadership agenda. It took us decades of school administrative experience to realize that other people were not ready to consider policy or programmatic objectives unless we resolved their concerns at the outset. When introducing an inquiry learning initiative, for example, teachers might raise concerns about the impact on their schedules and whether the curriculum change would exacerbate inequities among students. These would be the first issues to resolve before planning lessons, assessments, and professional development.
Many conflicts in schools reflect competing values. Heated discussions about grades mask deeper questions about the purpose of assessment and the responsibilities of teachers and students. Questions about allocation of resources camouflage more weighty disagreements about the relative value of each content area. Student discipline disputes reflect competing theories of child-rearing and managing behavior. Changing someone else's values is no easy task. More important, there should be room in schools for a wide variety of perspectives. Rather than charging head-on into broad value questions, we recommend school leaders engage those directly impacted and work with them to identify "good enough" solutions that enable stakeholders to achieve their goals at least in part.
Exercise can build conflict-agility skills over time, just as workouts in the gym can increase muscle strength. We started a protocol at the beginning of faculty meetings in which staff was asked to suggest agenda items for the good of the community, with the proviso that the issues: (1) must pertain to most of the faculty (no pet peeves); and (2) rather than blame and point fingers, everyone has to agree to be part of the solution. For example, after observing a spike in hallway behavior incidents, a teacher placed the matter on the agenda. The faculty next brainstormed how the teachers and administrators would both play a role in the remedy. The protocol allowed schoolwide issues to be solved expeditiously and with minimal grousing. Most important, group problem-solving skills improved, enabling faculty to gradually undertake more substantive disputes over time.

Focus on Actionable Ideas

In this divisive era, people don't simply disagree. They disparage the other person's character, ability, motives, and intelligence. These reactions delegitimize the individual while stifling creative problem solving. The first principle of Roger Fisher and William Ury's classic Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (2011) is to "separate the people from the problem" (p. 19). The role of the school leader is to deter ad hominem criticisms and instead shepherd parents and faculty to the arena of ideas where discussion is safe and agreement possible. For example, accusing teachers of being resistant to change or attributing actions to a desire for personal gain or status negates the validity of their concerns.
It might sound simplistic, but sometimes the problem is a lack of solutions—meaning each side poses a singular fix without considering a range of alternatives. Schools have much to learn from the growing field of cognitive bias, which maintains that human thinking is bound by dysfunctional thought patterns. In confirmation bias, people seek to validate their preconceptions, ignoring contrary evidence. Optimism bias, another cognitive constraint, is the phenomenon of anticipating one's plans will lead to only benign outcomes, ignoring the reality of unintended consequences.
To break through the barriers of cognitive biases and encourage thinking outside the box, we recommend teaching groups the process of design thinking, a technique that originated in engineering. Design thinking flows through five phases—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—first engaging participants in a search for creative solutions to a problem and then empowering them to work together to identify a remedy that truly addresses the source of the issue.

Finding the Strength in Conflict

It is widely accepted that we are living in the most divisive period in our nation's history in the last 50 years (since the Civil Rights Era) or perhaps even 160 years (the Civil War). The 2020s commenced with widespread Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and a fractious presidential election, not to mention an historic pandemic that has caused discord and fragmentation. Schools must join in courageous conversations about consequential issues that separate us. Conflict is ever-present in schools, just like any organization. How we address the dissension we encounter will determine whether or not we are able to come together.
James Baldwin (1962) famously declared, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced." Principals have a crucial responsibility to be role models and leaders who do not shrink from or subdue conflict, but rather instill a school culture that honors different voices and ideas. The most egregious effect of conflict is the missed opportunity to build capacity when schools are stymied by dissension. If schools will ever tackle consequential issues like systemic racism and inequity, it will result from having principals able to take the lead in harnessing conflict as a constructive and honest avenue for change.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Which of the three "A's" do you find yourself using most when faced with conflict? How do you know?

➛ How would you rate your own capacity for "conflict agility"? How would making improvements in this area change your impact as a leader?

➛ What questions or discussion tactics might you use to keep an open mind when talking with someone who disagrees with you?


Baldwin, J. (1962, January 14). As much truth as one can bear. New York Times.

Chan, K., Huang, X., & Ng, P. (2007). Managers' conflict management styles and employee attitudinal outcomes: The mediating role of trust. Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 25(2), 277–295.

Education Week. (2019, October 16). Principals, here's how teachers view you.

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin.

Johnson, P. (2003). Conflict and the school leader: Expert or novice. Journal of Research for Educational Leaders.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. New York: Jossey-Bass.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2018). National teacher and principal survey. Retrieved from:

Runde, C. E., & Flanagan, T. A. (2010). Developing your conflict competence: A hands-on guide for leaders, managers, facilitators, and teams. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Shoho, A. R., & Barnett, B. G. (2010). The realities of new principals: Challenges, joys, and sorrows. Journal of School Leadership, 20, 561–596.

Robert Feirsen is chair of the education department at New York Institute of Technology. He previously served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools.

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