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Conflict: A Most Difficult Task

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In this article, I share several conflict resolution strategies and principles that I've used both as a department and division chair, including seek to understand the problem before responding, use the principle of "least energy," change the channel, think of all communication as conflict prevention, and develop a vision for resolution. 



The posting below has some excellent advice on conflict resolution for new, and existing, department chairs.  It is by Teresa Holder is chair of the Organizational Studies, Division at Peace College. Email: article appeared in The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Spring, 2009, Vol. 19, No. 4., pp 11-12. For further information on how to subscribe, as well as pricing and discount information, please contact, Sandy Quade, Account Manager, John Wiley & Sons, Phone: (203) 643-8066 ( or see:


Rick Reis

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Conflict: A Most Difficult Task


Recently I received a lengthy and detailed email from a senior member of the division instructing me to reprimand another colleague who had not done something this colleague thought should have been done.

Actually, I thought this conflict had finally been resolved months ago. This particular situation was one I inherited - with a long history and deeply rooted. Symptoms of the dispute surface at seemingly random times. It's like the Hatfield's and the McCoy's. You'd like to think you're an effective enough manager that had you been there at the beginning, you could have prevented it. But now, layers of the conflict are somewhat indefinable and unsolvable.

One of the greatest challenges-yet essential job duties of the department chair-is being willing to deal with conflict. The chair's role also includes knowing when and how to be involved.

In this article, I share several conflict resolution strategies and principles that I've used both as a department and division chair, including seek to understand the problem before responding, use the principle of "least energy," change the channel, think of all communication as conflict prevention, and develop a vision for resolution.

                             Seek to Understand the Problem Before Responding

Although the situation just described has been perplexing, there have been many occasions when simply listening to someone's concern has resolved a problem. Once the problem is clearly defined, often a clear solution comes into focus. Even if the solution doesn't come immediately, the person at least may feel heard and valued. Behind every conflict is an explanation. Behind every problem with productivity or cultural misalignment is a story. All of us are faced with the pressures of work-life balance that may impact our performance on the job.

Many times I've realized the most effective thing I could do is to listen. Rather than sit in the office, I often suggest a walk on campus and through the nearby neighborhood-I with a small notepad and pen. We come back feeling better and with a clearer perspective about the situation. To get to the heart of the matter, ask yourself:

* What is the person saying with words?

* What is the predominant emotion in this situation?

* What other sources of information do I need to gather to truly understand what's going on?

                                         Use the Principle of "Least Energy"

Not everything can or should be resolved in the workplace. Just like people, conflict situations are often complex. Some issues may present themselves as workplace problems but are really personal in nature. In many situations we need only to achieve the professional cooperation necessary to work together or focus on the task. In the workplace we can ask for behavioral change more easily than we can demand a change of heart or attitude. The most effective approach may be the thing that requires the least involvement. Here are some suggestions.

Watch, wait, or ignore.

Some things will take care of themselves. For example, many departments have individuals who are simply negative by nature. As long as the other members don't take their negative comments too literally, much of their interaction can be understood as benign rather than as an attempt to pick a fight.

Affirm positives.

I'll explain why it's helpful to have information by a certain date and thank faculty in advance for working to get their reports or schedules turned in on time.

Faculty may be struggling in one area of performance but excelling at another. I can affirm people where

they are doing well.

Take action minimally, informally, or generally.

I may include general reminders about deadlines to the group, without having to target individuals. I may share a concern or an observation over a meal rather than in a conference in my office.

Use policies, processes, or programs already in place.

As an example, colleges have processes and policies for handling various types of disputes. As a chair, my role is not to engage in every complaint that arrives on my desk but to help students or faculty understand and use the processes available to them.

Likewise, if I'm using a mediation model to help individuals or small groups work through an issue, I'll explain that the process will provide the "rules" of how we're going to approach and discuss the presenting issue.

Develop new policies, processes, or programs to address the situation.

In the last few years the issue of secondhand smoke and the locations of the designated smoking areas have increasingly become problems on our campus. My college recently launched a successful tobacco-free campus campaign leading up to the adoption of a tobacco-free campus policy. The new policy has received strong support from the various constituent groups across campus, including smokers. The policy also resolved the issue of smoking-related littering and the corridor of smoke at building entrances.

                                                   Change the Channel

A common problem I've observed in the workplace is the use of the wrong medium to convey a message. People often use email to discuss and sort through issues that should only be addressed in person or by phone. More is accomplished in person when decisions require discussion and a reliance on nonverbal cues for understanding.

Recently I observed a pattern of conflict erupting between two departments when it came time to plan for

semester course scheduling. These faculty units were interdependent, yet housed in two different divisions and located on different parts of campus. They rarely saw each other or interacted. They had to coordinate both their course offerings and staffing, but- out of convenience-communicated only by email. When the problem came to me, I had to advise faculty to respond to emails by picking up the phone and communicating directly. Of course, playing a little phone tag was less convenient than sending email missiles, but much more was accomplished. Talking kept the exchanges more professional and much of the misunderstanding was eliminated.

Within the division I've had to encourage departments to intentionally create common department meeting times with other units with whom they share faculty or projects. When a department needs to schedule a meeting with another, they've already built in the time and space to do so.

I also have a time limit on our monthly division meetings, which means monitoring how many issues

can go on the agenda for any one meeting. Honoring a reasonable time limit on the larger meeting enables the subgroups to have short joint meetings afterwards, if needed.

Some organizations are limiting the use of internal email by intentionally restricting its use. For example, as a way to cut down on its overuse, employees may be instructed to communicate only in person or by phone with one another on Fridays. Email is a convenient tool- I don't know how we ever did business without it-but it's a poor channel for complex decision making, relationship building, or conflict resolution.

                  Think of All Communication as Conflict Prevention

Many employees see department meetings as a nuisance, but the value of a well-run meeting is that it provides important face time, builds a foundation for communicating, and provides opportunities for team building. Having successful interpersonal relationships makes communicating by phone or email more effective as well. When conflict does occur, we're more likely to give the other party more latitude and judge intent more positively when there's a good relationship.

When there have been the funds to do so, I've arranged for either the first or the midyear faculty meeting to be off campus in a scenic and comfortable location for team building. Having a light agenda, providing a meal, and giving the faculty time to discuss larger issues has helped us build relationships. Interacting out of our normal setting also helps us create new patterns of relating.

I'm also intentional in my communication by making sure all meetings and emails are positive in tone. In addition, to emphasize a strong teaching excellence agenda in the division, we incorporate a brief portion of all our meetings to teaching tips or some type of faculty development on teaching. It emphasizes what our true purpose is as a group-not just discussing proposals or rehashing old issues.

                                Develop a Vision for Resolution

When I'm mediating a situation, a common question I'll ask is: "What would you like to see as an outcome to

this meeting?" While agreement on the presenting issues may be difficult to achieve, often the parties will readily identify and agree that they want the bickering and emotional drain to cease. We find ways to achieve that as a common goal.

I've never met anyone who didn't appreciate a well-run meeting. Agreeing to ground rules to help us achieve that outcome leads to better decision making and better processes. By doing so, we create a vision of what we want to see happen and a positive goal to work toward. ţ

This article is based on a presentation at the 26th annual Academic Chairpersons Conference, February 11-13, 2009, Orlando, Florida.