How to handle staff conflicts in schools

A harmonious staffroom may be every school leader’s dream but it’s rarely the reality, so the ability to manage personality clashes or disagreement about roles is crucial. Grainne Hallahan finds out from the experts how to keep the peace
16th July 2021, 12:00am
How To Handle Staff Conflicts In Schools


How to handle staff conflicts in schools

Sade and Mo were friends as well as colleagues. They’d hit it off from their first induction day as newly qualified teachers, when Sade was teaching Year 2 and Mo Year 4. At school, their friendship and working relationship overlapped happily; their morning routine tessellated perfectly, with one making the coffee as the other buttered the toast. After lessons, they’d often be found marking together in the staffroom.

But when Mo was moved into key stage 2 and paired with Sade as Year 6 group partner, the relationship soured. The friendly chatter stopped. Communications were frosty at best and hostile at worst.

Things came to a head in a moderation meeting for Year 6 writing assessments, which ended in a row - and saw Mo and Sade making formal complaints about each other.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs but not a wholly unusual one. An entirely conflict-free staffroom may be the dream but it’s rarely a reality. And some argue that a workplace with zero conflict is not a particularly desirable environment to work in anyway.

Sonia Gill is an expert in tricky relationships, and the author of Successful Difficult Conversations in Schools.

“Conflict is a part of life but it can be a healthy and helpful conflict that ultimately moves things to a better place,” she says.

There are many types of conflict that can appear in a school: friendships can fall apart, as with Mo and Sade; new starters can experience personality clashes; disagreements over roles and responsibilities in projects can grow into bigger disputes. There are countless variations.

We know that fallouts are bound to happen. But what should school leaders do about them?

Don’t wait until it’s too late

As a leader, knowing when to intervene in a staff conflict can be tough. Too early and you’re “interfering”; too late and you’ve allowed a problem to escalate.

Philip Stiles, a senior lecturer in corporate governance at Cambridge Judge Business School and co-director of the Centre for International Human Resource Management, says the trick is to put out the sparks before they turn into flames.

“Good managers should have a strong set of ‘antennae’ about both the task and relationship aspects of their team, and seek to ensure that any possible tension can be noticed early and dealt with early,” he says.

It’s not just about the issue you’re dealing with right now, he continues, but potential future fallouts, too.

“[If leaders] treat the issue when it has escalated, it may be too late and positions are entrenched,” he says. “Not tolerating [smaller] unproductive disagreements or tensions means that bigger and more damaging disputes may not arise.”

Open your ears

Phillip Hedger is a primary school teacher and chief executive of LEO Academy Trust. He has handled many staff fallouts throughout his career and his advice is to always be prepared to listen.

“It’s important you provide the opportunity for both parties to have their voices heard,” he says. “You don’t want either side to feel as if you’ve favoured one more than the other. A lot of the time, the best thing to do is to let people talk it through with you so they know you’ve listened to what they have to say.”

Create structures to avoid conflict

Sometimes fallouts occur because people perceive others as overbearing or managing beyond their remit. Hedger says this can cause unnecessary friction in staff relationships because the chain of command isn’t clear.

“In a school, you often have role changes or people coming from a different school that used a different hierarchical structure,” he says.

“In these cases, relationships become stressed because there is a perception that someone is either not fulfilling their role to the extent their manager expected or they’ve overreached and have put someone’s nose out of place by going beyond what their responsibilities lay out.”

Luckily, there is an easy fix for this, says Hedger: clear communication about everyone’s roles and who reports to whom.

Gill agrees. “The clearer we can be about our expectations of conduct and performance, and our own roles and responsibilities, the easier it is to move things forward when they go slightly wrong,” she says.

Focus on the outcome

When dealing with conflict, keep your focus on the future, says Stiles, because dwelling on the past won’t help.

“Try to avoid blame and focus on moving on,” he says. “The goal is to get acknowledgement that the current state cannot continue and both parties have to find a way forward. Try to avoid one side ‘winning’ and the other side ‘losing’.”

Gill adds that the resolution needs to be at the forefront of the conversation throughout.

“Speak to your staff individually to establish the real issue and outcome: what is causing it and what would resolve it?” she says. “Then focus on what they can do [to resolve things] as much, if not more, than the other person.”

Consider power dynamics

Sometimes fallouts have another complication: a power imbalance between the complainants. It’s always hard to act as mediator between two warring colleagues but it is harder when one person holds a senior post.

“This is really difficult because position often equates to status, and with a conflict of this kind, you are calling into question the status of a person,” says Stiles.

If this happens, he continues, the higher-status person may try to dig in and resist any change, fearing that their position will be undermined. It’s always important to make sure, in conflict resolution, that everyone can come out of it without losing face. But Stiles says this is particularly important when dealing with different hierarchical levels.

“In conflicts of this kind, the higher-status person has to be afforded some deference and an appreciation of their rank,” he says, though leaders need to stop short of giving them an unfair advantage.

And, as with any conflict resolution, he concludes, the focus should always remain “on the task and not on the person”.

Grainne Hallahan is recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

This article originally appeared in the 16 July 2021 issue under the headline “How to handle staff conflicts”

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