The Conflict Management Tool Kit

Academic departments can encounter conflict from many angles, and it can undermine chairs if they don't manage it well. Patricia Price and Scott Newman offer advice on how they can do so.

February 20, 2015
Getty Images

The desire to avoid conflict at all costs is a very human, reflexive one: conflict ranks up there with death, snakes and public speaking in the annals of the most feared.

Yet conflict is an unavoidable facet of human relationships, therefore, no workplace -- including your department -- is immune. Once you become a department chair, part of your job is to address conflict so that interpersonal relationships are respectful and productive and the core business of the department -- teaching students, conducting research, engaging in shared governance -- can proceed.

When conflict is left unaddressed in its early stages, it can, as Nate Kreuter has observed, metastasize, growing into a disproportionately large problem affecting more than the issue merited originally. When conflict is left unexamined, a department chair risks overlooking her new best friend.

Conflict comes from the Latin term for "striking together." There’s a reason "where there’s smoke, there’s fire" is an oft-repeated phrase about conflict. Conflict can alert an astute department chair to something that may negatively or positively impact the department.

There is sound scholarship examining many aspects of conflict and its management. You can take online quizzes to determine your conflict management style. Of course, gruesome tales of conflict in academe abound across the spectrum of issues, personalities and stakes large and small.

As 2013-14 American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows, we recently spent an entire year scrutinizing the landscape of higher education and how leaders variously grapple with the conflicts generated herein. We also collaborate in the facilitation of a workshop session specifically on conflict management for the ACE Leadership Academy for Department Chairs, another component of the organization’s leadership series.

Though the information here is generally relevant to anyone attempting to address conflict, department chairs occupy unique pivot points for conflict: it filters up to them from the faculty and student ranks, cascades down from above and emerges from the flanks via a host of other departmental stakeholders -- including administrators, alumni and community partners. Thus, effective strategies can save significant energy and headaches given the amount of time -- 40 percent, by one account -- a chair is occupied by managing conflict in one form or another.

To be clear, we are talking here about interpersonal conflicts that arise within the department: either between the chair and another person (first-party conflict) or between two other individuals (third-party conflict). Once an interpersonal conflict has surfaced, and you as chair are reasonably sure that it falls under your jurisdiction, the following sequence of actions can serve as a template for how to proceed. Of course, identifying the nature and scope of the conflict is a key preliminary step and one that may not be as easy as it sounds.

  • Make the approach. Contact the individual or individuals involved and set a date to meet and address the conflict. E-mail is a wonderful thing, but for potentially touchy conversations such as setting up this initial meeting, talking directly in person or over the phone will help you avoid two of the main pitfalls of e-mail: misinterpretation of tone on the receiving end, and not being able to immediately adjust your message (to provide additional information, for instance).
  • Share perspectives. Is there in fact a conflict? If so, what does that conflict consists of, and how did the conflict come to be? You will likely hear different versions from the individuals involved. That is natural, given that each person can only experience conflict in a situational and therefore partial manner. This step allows you to develop together a fuller picture of the conflict, and for each party to air their perspectives.
  • Articulate an understanding. Encouraging the involved parties to verbally concur as to the existence and nature of the conflict may seem to constitute an unnecessary formality. Nevertheless, this step marks a powerful moment that allows those involved to move forward together.
  • Agree on next steps. Resolving a conflict outright is seldom possible. Rather, the goal of managing conflict so that the departmental business can continue and individuals can work together respectfully will likely be your focus. What actions or changes are needed in order for this to occur? Clearly verbalize the specific action items arising from your meeting and who is responsible for doing them.
  • Establish a time line and outcomes. Set a time line -- including, if warranted, another meeting to report on progress. It may also be appropriate to document expected outcomes (i.e., what will happen or be different from before) and who is accountable for bringing them to fruition.

Obviously, this is a general sequence, and you should be open to modifying your approach. If you are presented with a conflict that must be addressed immediately, could compromise the safety of a person under your supervision or is of a sort that would trigger mandatory reporting (to the general counsel’s office, for instance), you may well need to accelerate through the process, bring in additional parties to address the conflict or take a more direct approach than what is outlined here.

In your role as department chair, the following techniques can be employed during your meeting in order to engage the conflict management process in a respectful and productive fashion.

  • Greet individuals as you normally would.
  • Sit in a private area without obstructions or distractions. Meeting in your office signals that you’re in charge of the meeting, whereas meeting in a neutral location can diminish such a perception. Cafés and off-campus sites can also be helpful, but may -- or may not, depending on the venue -- provide an appropriate measure of confidentiality.
  • Keep your voice low and tone even when speaking.
  • Avoid humor. Though cracking a joke is a common icebreaker, the odds of its backfiring in inherently tense situations are too high to risk.
  • Encourage all parties to share their viewpoints fully, and express your appreciation for their willingness to do so.
  • Be patient and use active listening (e.g., paraphrase, maintain eye contact and nod).
  • Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.

Here are some additional tips to bear in mind throughout the conflict management process. Some are pragmatic, others are big picture, but all of them are important.

  • KYO (Know Your Office), with respect to both the policies that are in place and the office culture. If you are a new department chair, make a point to familiarize yourself with both early on, before a conflict manifests itself.
  • If your department does not have a written code of conduct, consider drafting one together with your faculty. Having such a document in place can go a long way because it collectively articulates expected behavior in writing.
  • Before wading into a conflict, think about what the ideal outcome of the conflict management process would be, based on your current understanding of the matter. This will help you to clarify the situation and your role in it, and to keep things realistic.
  • Separate your emotions from the facts of the conflict. While it is helpful to acknowledge the role that emotions play in your effectiveness as a departmental chair, in a conflict situation it is best to let the facts alone drive the process.
  • Anticipate situations that may become conflictual, and, if possible, address a budding conflict early on, before it compromises departmental operations or the quality of the relationships between the individuals involved, or draws in others as the orbit of unaddressed conflict expands.
  • Crying can be a signal that an individual is not ready to discuss a conflict; it can also be a way to derail or reroute a difficult conversation. Be sympathetic but firm, and reschedule the meeting if a participant cannot maintain a baseline of composure.
  • Bullying is a particularly vexing situation for a chair, one that merits -- and, thankfully, has -- a practical literature addressing it that is immensely helpful.
  • Don’t diagnose. Though it may be tempting to chalk another’s behavior up to a crisis outside of work or a mental challenge, your role is not clinical psychologist. Department chairs should be familiar with available on-campus resources in case a direct report reaches out for help.
  • Apropos of the previous tip, you should be familiar with the formal resources for managing conflict that exist on your campus. Do you operate under a collective bargaining agreement? If so, you should be familiar with the agreement and have a copy of it handy. Does the department, college or university have a standard operating procedure in place? Is there an ombudsman available for consultation? Does the university have a behavioral intervention team or similar? Beware that circumventing or failing to follow written policies can come back to haunt you if a grievance or lawsuit eventually arises.
  • And apropos of this last tip: document, document, document. Save e-mails from involved parties. Note the dates and substance of the conversations you have. Put the next steps in writing. Consider keeping a file in a secure location (locked drawer or password-protected file) to store such materials.
  • Don’t hesitate to be in touch with your general counsel’s office, if you have one in-house. If not, find out how to contact the external general counsel. Many chairs are unaware of the knowledgeable resources these professionals represent, or are shy about contacting them. Don’t be.
  • Be safe. If you sense a situation may become explosive, make sure that you have a clear exit route from the meeting place, don’t meet behind closed doors and consider having a third party available in a nearby location.

Bear in mind that conflict resolution -- the elimination of the conflict altogether -- is rare. In most instances, the best a chair can hope for is to manage a conflict situation. Whether you have a conflict -- or several -- brewing now or not, you will, almost assuredly, at some point find yourself in a situation where the steps, strategies and tips provided here will provide a handy tool kit.


Patricia L. Price is a professor of geography at Florida International University. Scott Newman is the executive director of academic relations at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology and author of Higher Education Administration: 50 Case-Based Vignettes (Information Age Publishing).

Back to Top