Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay
Image by Susanne Jutzeler, suju-foto from Pixabay

Leading teams in learning and teaching: how to manage conflict

In this blogpost, Mari Cruz García explores how to transform conflict, when it arises in learning and teaching teams, into opportunities to verbalize needs and find common ground.

My colleague Dave Baskill and I had the pleasure to deliver a webinar for ALT on ‘Leading Teams on Teaching and Learning’ and whose recording you can find here. In the webinar, we reflected on what constitutes a ‘good manager’ and how to use different leadership styles to support different team members.

But leading teams also involves managing conflict within the team. From the different techniques and approaches used to handle conflict, I use the approach of considering management as coaching. Following this approach, we need to understand first what conflict means.

Conflict is, above all, a perception in peoples’ minds. As defined by great change facilitator and motivational speaker Sherry Campbell, “conflict is a friction or opposition resulting from actual or perceived differences or incompatibilities”. If someone’s perception of a situation or person is negative, their outlook will be negative and their ability to find a solution together will be negative too. Luckily, perceptions can be changed.

From my experience leading teams in learning and teaching, the majority of conflicts are caused due to the lack of trust or personality clashes. One conflict has the potential to introduce others. That is why it is important to address conflict when the first signs of friction are visible, rather than avoiding it. Introverted managers may find this difficult but, from a coaching perspective, conflict is not always negative.

Conflict can also be an opportunity to review if the existing structures or agreements are still working or if something new needs to be introduced. Conflict teaches us to listen and to identify patterns of behaviour and what is behind those patterns. On the bright side, conflict can help managers to become better managers.

Think of a possible situation of conflict at work (or somewhere else) that you want to overcome. The first step will be to explore the so-called ‘Iceberg of Conflict’ – the visible part of the iceberg of conflict are behaviours and attitudes, but they are only the symptoms, not the causes. When a team member is showing signs of a conflictive behaviour or attitude, you need to dig into the hidden parts of the iceberg: the assumptions and the hierarchy of beliefs and values that shape that team member’s perception of reality, as shown below:

The Conflict Iceberg model

The first step is, therefore, exploring the whole conflict iceberg with the individual in a mindful conversation in which you can use the following tips:

  • Use open questions and give any space to explore assumption and beliefs.
  • Do not challenge assumptions or beliefs (not at this stage), focus on empirical evidence and facts: for example, if your team member feels that he/she has is being discriminated because of he/she is XX , ask him/her to give you examples of when this happened.
  • Set clear boundaries about the tone and style in which both of you are going to explore the conflict, in particular, if this involves a third person who is not in the room.
  • Ask for possible outcomes of the conversation: what does the person want from you?

You will see that, often, people who are upset about a situation or a work colleague do not know what outcome or solution they would want. They just need to verbalise their anger and we need to transform that verbalisation into possible outcomes or acceptable solutions. And that brings us to the next step: finding common ground, for which I will introduce the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Model. This model is also known as the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®). It comprises five conflict resolution models placing them on two dimensions as the graphic shows:

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Model
  • Assertiveness is the degree to which a person tries to satisfy their personal goals and objectives. There is nothing wrong in being assertive and it should not be mistaken with being aggressive. Being assertive is the ability to the community in a confident manner what is important to you. How you exercise your assertiveness involves cultural elements, gender elements and, for some authors, social class and ethnicity, but this would be a topic for another post.
  • The other dimension, Cooperativeness, is the degree to which a person tries to satisfy other people’s goals.

In a situation of conflict at work, in our role of managers as coaches, we need to bring the conflict to resolution modes that involve both dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness; The agreement or common ground should allow the team member to ‘harmonize’ or align their own personal goals with the team goals. Ideally, agreeing with a collaborating resolution would be the best outcome but, let’s face it: we are living in changing world where nothing is perfect, so finding solutions in the compromising area of the model is perfectly valid. In my experience, the real danger is trying to keep the conflict resolution on the lower areas: either sidestepping the conflict or trying to satisfy other people’s goals at the expense of your own’s.

Although the TKI is a useful tool, managing conflict in teams is never going to be applying a mathematical formula. Although there will not always be a win-win outcome we aim to achieve an agreement in which people feel that, what it is most important to them (usually their personal values) is being honoured.

Our challenge, as managers and coaches, is to transform friction into differentiation, which in Sherry Campbell’s word is “our capacity to tell our truth and perspective as clearly as we see it, all the while remaining engaged with those who believe differently from us.” We need to nurture a work culture that supports differentiation.

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

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