Martin Luther King Jr
A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.
Increased standards, decreased budgets, long working hours and recruitment difficulties are just some of the issues which can lead to increased conflict in schools. Poorly managed disputes can lead, amongst other problems, to stress, high absence and turnover, grievances, poor performance and decision-making, sabotage and employment tribunal claims.
Research from ACAS in 2015 shows a study in which the majority of disputes last for longer than 12 months and that over a quarter of disputes involve more than ten days of management and HR time. As a school leader it is therefore important to understand your role and responsibilities in managing conflict.
‘Forced’ conflict management
There are a number of ways to manage conflict and one well-used method is through ‘force’, that is via instructions or an exercise of power, as would be found in disciplinaries or in issuing management notes of guidance. Such a method can be helpful when a quick resolution to a problem is necessary or to stop an aggression; however it can also be damaging to relationships with individuals in the long run and entrench negative behaviours.
Another method of addressing conflict is ‘adjudication’, which can include independent investigations executed via grievances or sometimes employment tribunals. Often when conflict reaches the stage where a third party is needed to decide who is right or wrong, it may be well past the time for finding a resolution.
What’s wrong with ‘traditional’ negotiation?
Talking about conflict can be helpful on a one to one basis or in working with trade unions, other representatives or focus groups. However, often to address conflict between individuals properly, discussions need to be enhanced by some form of negotiation between the parties without solutions being directed. Traditional methods of negotiation focus on ‘positional’ bargaining, which starts from an ‘I want’ position and rarely leads to problems being resolved satisfactorily.
How is mediation different?
Mediation allows for ‘interest based’ bargaining which is centred on the needs, fears, desires and concerns underlying an individual’s position. The mediator will be able to draw on the fact that there can be many ways of satisfying someone’s interests which do not just include the solution they initially present. In addition to allowing colleagues to reach their own lasting solution, mediation can also engender increased empowerment and positive thought, it can also lead to staff being better aligned with the school’s visions, aims and goals.
Independent and external mediation in school can be helpful in addressing conflict by providing an independent and unbiased facilitator to the process. It can be useful in a number of conflict management situations between colleagues and/or line managers when they are voluntarily willing to address issues such as individual behaviours, personality clashes or poor management skills. It can also be used when appropriate as an alternative to grievance procedures or following grievance or disciplinary procedure as a means of rebuilding relationships.
The mediation process itself ordinarily involves individual meetings with staff which take place in school, followed by a joint mediation session taking place soon after but on a different day. Whilst mediation is a challenging process for staff to undergo, our experience shows us that a large majority of cases that we deal with end up with a positive outcome. Read our School Mediation Case Study from a local headteacher to find out how we were able to resolve staff conflict.