The following post was done in collaboration with Ryan Boughen and Brent Chadwick:
The first of my interviews was conducted with a school principal. The issue presented is one that is common within the school setting taking place between a parent and an administrator. The confrontation begins with an irate parent coming to school because her/his child was suspended. The parent didn’t understand why their child, who acted in self-defense, was given a consequence. The parent entered the office cussing and demanding to see the principal.
As the principal made contact with the parent she/he greeted the parent smiling extending her/his hand to shake hands. They both walked back to her/his office where the parent was offered a seat. The principal took out a notebook and asked for the parents permission to take some notes so they could then talk. The principal began by writing the parents name and her/his child’s name on the top of the paper. She/he then asked the parent what he had heard, and what concerns he had about this situation so she/he can make sure they were on the same page. The principal was sure not to ask what story the child told the parent. The principal took notes and wrote down tidbits of what the parent said and was engaged in active listening. The principal then asked to get up so she/he could get the child’s written statement. The principal allowed the parent to read the statement written by their child, and they were able to see some discrepancies in the story. Following this, the principal showed the parent the policy which addressed the situation which outlined the consequence that could have been a five day suspension, but under the circumstances the child only received two days of ICS (in class suspension) so she/he did not miss any schooldays or work. The parent inquired about the consequence for the other student, which the principal was unable to give, and they understood. The principal then asked the parent how his child liked school and how their grades were. When the parent didn’t know the principal was able to pull up his child’s grades and get him information to access SPAN (grades on the computer from home).
The meeting concluded when the parent left and everyone was on good terms. The parent had an understanding of the fairness of the consequences and was informed about her/his child’s grades. The two parties shook hands and the parent thanked the principal. The principal felt the parent contact was a success and as it is a familiar situation within the school setting she/he feels confident as to the conflict resolution.
The sources of the conflict within the situation stem from a lack of knowledge on the part of the parent as to the school policy regarding discipline. The parent was under the impression that if their child was not the instigator then why the consequence? According to Godard the principal is in a position of authority and the parent is unaware of the guidelines dictating discipline decision making. (Godard, 2011 p.52) When the principal shared school policy it was key to redirecting the focus of the parent and setting a common understanding within the situation. Also the parent perceived the situation quite differently as her/his child was involved which places into the situation an objective interest conflict. (Godard, 2011 p.54) There may also be elements of broader social inequities as the school is in a lower socioeconomic setting and as a result perceptions of inequalities exist even though neither players in the situation present them within the context of the situation. (Godard, 2011 p.55)
The sources of cooperation stem from the generation of a common understanding of situational equity in the discipline of both students. According to Godard consent, in this case by the parent, concedes to the right of the principal to exercise authority. (Godard, 2011 p.64). Accompanying the right to exercise authority both parties are engaged in a negotiation of order via engagement in a give and take between the principal and parent supported by the psychological agreement helping to focus the conversation. The principal did a good job at focusing the conversation and creating a common understanding so no ill feelings arose and respect was reciprocal. (Godard, 2011 p. 63-4)
For my second interview I was able to speak with a grade level administrator. The issue she/he had to deal with involved two staff members who worked in the same physical space, but did not get along with one another. They were very different people in their personalities and were often at odds over simple things. One staff member had been at the school for almost twenty years and the other was new to the school. The new staff member was taking the place of a much loved individual who retired and the new staff member was in a leadership role over the veteran staff member. Conflicts emerged and spanned every aspect of their jobs and interactions. The situation deteriorated until the two teachers had an argument in front of students and staff in which they were screaming at each other and making threats to do physical harm to one another.
The principal asked the administrator to try to resolve the issue. She/he met with the two people individually so they could share their side of the story. She/he then met with both staff members together along with a counselor. Rules for the discussion were established and agreed upon. The administrator told both teachers that she/he had heard their concerns and complaints about the other individual and the purpose of this meeting was to determine how all parties involved could finish the school year as well as continue to meet the needs of the students. The administrator acknowledged that feelings were hurt, that neither side was at fault and they were all working towards common ground of how everyone could move forward. Each person was afforded the opportunity to state what she/he needed from the other individual in order to maintain a safe working environment for the remainder of the year. The administrator took careful notes to document the boundaries and guidelines for their work environment. When they would began to talk about what had happened in the past, the administrator reminded them that everyone was aware of past issues and the focus was on how to move forward. When the meeting was over, the administrator typed the notes in the form of an agreement and sent them to each individual. The teachers were to let the administrator know if any corrections needed to be made. Both teachers agreed to follow the guidelines; 1. If someone violated the agreement, they were not to address the individual, but were to see the administrator or the counselor to intervene. 2. They agreed to meet again three weeks later to see how things were going and if any adjustments were needed in the agreement.
The administrator felt the process was successful. No one violated the agreement and after three weeks the teachers were back on speaking terms. The teachers finished out the year without further incident. The most important thing was to let both sides be heard and acknowledge that they were wronged. The teachers also heard from the administrator that they were important to the school because they brought different skills and areas of expertise to the school. It was also important that they both had input in the agreement and neither teacher was allowed to vent in the meeting by pulling from the past.
This was the first time the administrator had conducted a mediation with such strong, hurtful feelings involved. She/he felt they appropriately kept the disagreeing parties focused on moving forward and putting the past behind them. The administrator ended with her/his belief that the conflict management was very successful and would not do anything differently.
According to Godard the sources of the conflict in this situation are based on the nature of employment relations. (Godard, 2011 p. 52) Two aspects of the teacher relationship are important while discussing a source of conflict. The first being the seniority of one teacher and the newness of the other. The second being that the new teacher was placed into a position of power over the more senior teacher. The power dynamic between the two teachers is referenced by Godard when he discusses how managers are not held accountable by those who work for them by virtue of an authoritarian position (Godard, 2011 p. 52-3). With the less senior teacher being the one in an authority position this alone is enough for conflict to begin.
The nature of employment contract played a role in the breakdown of communication and the generation of ill feelings between the two teachers. Often contracts are vaguely worded and the nature of the work may be hard to measure. “…much remains unwritten, consisting of expectations and understandings that have developed over time”. (Godard, 2011 p.54) With nothing specific written down as far as authority guidelines between the two teachers along with the unspoken psychological contract, the expectation of seniority over authority, conflict was bound to surface. (Godard, 2011 p. 54)
The sources of cooperation are the closely related values each of the teachers has in relation to their work. They are both held to the psychological contract in education and “… workers tend to believe that they have a duty to live up to…” (Godard, 2011 p.64). With a shared purpose the two teachers would be more likely to find common ground within the work itself and be able, at least during school hours, to set their differences aside for the student centered duties they perform at school.
Seniority is the key when one examines this situation under Godard’s manifestation of the conflict as this scenario is directly connected to the negotiation of order. The dynamics of a senior teacher being supervised by a less experienced teacher and a new teacher to the school is ripe for conflict. Seniority in education as based on the psychological contract within a staff holds a tremendous weight for some. The more experienced teacher may have felt slighted by the administrators as to not being placed in the supervisory role and thus harbored resentment towards the newer less experienced teacher that then manifested itself via insubordination and dissension of the supervisors authority. (Godard, 2011 p. 67-8)
The third interview was with a grade level administrator and centered around her/his end of day bus duty. One of the buses returned to school because a group of students were clapping, stumping and rocking the back of the bus while in motion. One student got up out of her/his seat and approached the driver. The driver told the student to sit her/his ‘ass’ down. The student got upset and began cursing at the driver.
When the administrator walked out to meet the bus, the driver was upset and had kicked about five students off the bus. The students were upset and loud and were directed to sit on the steps. Each wanted to tell her/his story immediately. The administrator first wanted to hear what the driver had to say. The students were quite excited and the administrator was able to get them to do what was asked of them by speaking to them in a calm voice repeating her/his expectations. The administrator also approached the driver in the same manner for a couple of reasons; 1. There had already been a conflict with this specific bus driver last year dealing with students and 2. The administrator wanted to model to the students how to handle a heated situation. After talking to the driver the administrator exited the bus and calmly talked with the students giving each of them a chance to explain her/his side of the story. Within the discussion it was explained to the students how they should have handled the situation. First off they should not have been stomping on the bus and two if the bus driver cursed at them they should have went home, told their parents so the adults could handle it. It was then explained to the students why they had to exit the bus and call a parent to come pick them up.
The administrator feels a key aspect of solving the conflict was the constant refocusing and calm demeanor she/he maintained during the conversations. The administrator never raised her/his voice despite many opportunities to do so. In the end the students did not think it was fair for the driver to curse at them and they were correct however, the students did concede to how their actions contributed to the situation.
In this scenario the source of the conflict lies in the nature of the relationship. “In a society that values individual freedom and democracy, workers can generally be expected to resent their position of subordination, and this can, in and of itself, serve as a source of conflict (Watson, 1987 p. 219). Students may not see bus drivers as having similar levels of authority and therefore resent rules set forth by the bus driver and in holding this perception be more likely to engage in conflict.
The source of cooperation in this scenario is based in the psychological agreement the students have with the administrator as a representative of the school. With the administrator being able to mitigate the conflict a calm was maintained and reinforced through the equitable treatment of all parties involved. Godard draws on Karl Marx’s view that a persons job is central to one’s identity. “It seems, then, that most workers want to able able to do their jobs as well as possible and are generally loyal to the person they work for” (Godard, 2011, p. 65). This is evident in the resolution of the bus issue as the administrator held both parties accountable and in response both parties accepted responsibility for their part in the situation.
The manifestation of the conflict is apparent in the students misbehavior. The students resent authoritarian aspects of their relationship with the bus driver and as a consequence repeated incidents of horseplay took place. “This may involve pranks against co-workers, or it may involve mock fighting, or even actual play fights with paper clips, tape balls, or whatever is at hand’ (Godard, 2011 p. 68). In this scenario the generation of loud noise and the rocking of the bus took place in opposition to the authority held by the bus driver.
Crucial Confrontations, tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillian, and Al Switzler prescribes a six step approach when dealing with conflict in the work place. For the purpose of this literature review the two stakeholders in the conversations will be referred to as management, the person initiating the conversation and labor, the individual being confronted. Although crucial confrontations can take place not only between management and labor it is important to qualify these labels as to not narrow the scope of application crucial confrontations presents.
The first part of crucial confrontation guides management to focus on two initial elements: 1. What? This initial part explores the motivation and/or ability of labor to carry out a given request. 2. If? Will the social system support their effort (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 43)?
The second part explores how ‘stories’ influence perceptions of others prior to engagement in a confrontation as well as during the confrontation. Three elements of attributes emerged that provide a guideline for contextual understanding of people and situations. The authors point out that we all have perceptions of people’s actions and when one tries to contextualize the motivations of stakeholders within the situation greater understandings emerge. Most often management focus’ on dispositional attributes as a source of conflict. Dispositional attributes are viewed as uncontrollable personality factors that influence individuals. The authors add in parallel to dispositional attributes, situational attributes. Situational attributes allows for the exploration of environmental forces which influence behavior. Exploration of the situational attributes can reduce the influence of the Fundamental Attribution Error. The fundamental attribution error assumes others actions are based on personality characteristics while ignoring other motivations. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p.60) Two ways to reduce the influence of assumptions is to ask humanizing questions to refocus dispositional aspects of the situation.
The third part of crucial confrontation describes the gap where problem acknowledgement and solutions enter the conversation. The pathway set forth by the authors is to make it motivating and easy. When management engages labor in crucial conversations the discussion must start with safety as management must find a way to state the concern illiciting the least amount of defensiveness from labor. If required management may need to restate concerns in order to reduce defensiveness. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 100) As management and labor work through the issues it is important for management to share her/his path. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 104) Management needs to be clear about her/his focus, stay external, explain what and not focus on the why, and gather facts rather than deal in obscure vagaries of detail. Management must stay clear of absolutes as absolutes only share conclusions not emerging facts. Finally end with a question as this allows labor to state her/his response and share her/his story. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 104)
Management also needs to consider labors action in relation to motivation. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 114) The authors state that people act based on consequences she/he anticipate and labor may be under the influence of multiple consequences and as a result act on perceived consequence bundles. As a means of motivation management would want to explore natural consequences or those elements that are embedded into the situation labor would be aware of and are not imposed by management (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 126).
The next step in this part is to match the problem solving method to situational circumstance. Concrete solutions help management and labor to finish on a positive note. A crucial aspect of finalizing the crucial confrontation is to detail expectation, review accountability, and set a timeline for follow up. (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 139) However, if motivation is not the issue then management needs to explore ability barriers of labor in the initial event(s) that led to the crucial confrontation.
Part five of Crucial Confrontations pays particular focus on management staying flexible and focused. Often when dealing with problems other problems may arise. When this happens put the original problem on hold and deal with what is most urgent. Once that element of the situation has been resolved both parties may refocus back the original problem. Management does not need to overkill labor by hammering at more than one issue, especially if the confrontation has been emotionally taxing (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 173).
The final step in crucial confrontation is to create a plan. The plan as agreed upon by both management and labor needs to make sure all details and expectations have been resolved in the situation. Both management and labor need to know where she/he stand after the confrontation has been resolved (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 205-8).
As a group, we decided to apply the knowledge we gained through our literature review to Brent Chadwick’s conflict situation. First, by analysing the conflict through the lens of Crucial Conversation, it became obvious to Ryan, through conversations with Brent, that the superintendent did not begin the process in dialogue. Perhaps if this priority was clearly articulated to all teachers through dialogue (creating a shared pool of knowledge), the situation may have been avoided. Further, the fact that there was no prior discussion led Ryan to believe that the superintendent began the supervision process in silence, specifically, in the form of avoidance, as he chose to not engage in prior discussion regarding this initiative. However, after realizing the teacher’s discontent, the superintendent reflected on the situation and changed the supervision report to exclude the statements regarding dress. Ryan can only assume, because he was not able to discuss this matter directly with the superintendent, that upon reflection, the superintendent started with heart to clarify his intent, and made it safe by examining his motives and focusing on shared purpose. Last, Ryan believes the superintendent also explored the teacher’s path by first seeking to understand their position.
Through the lens of FIERCE Conversations, the issue between the Superintendent and the teacher can be analyzed. Firstly, both parties need to interrogate reality and be able to see where each side was coming from. The Superintendent needs to explain where the division is heading with the professional dress issue and the teacher needs to be open to the fact that they may have to change something from this domain of the professional evaluation. Secondly, the superintendent needs to promote the learning of both himself and the teacher by making the priorities of the division clear to all employees and then, by being transparent, allow him to learn how to make a major change in a less disturbing way. Thirdly, the Superintendent needs to tackle the tough challenges by examining the individual employee’s report and possibly changing it to fit the situation rather than grouping all into one basket. Despite the fact that the Superintendent wanted to make this change, he will find he will move people a lot quicker towards the desired result if he does so in the right way. His decision to change the written report may gain him more in the end. Lastly, enriching the relationship will put the two parties back to a basis where they can once again be productive in their roles. The superintendent needs to gain back the trust of the teaching body when they do supervision. This trust will make change easier in the future and can go a long way in making staff progress. On the other side, the teacher needs to show everyone they are back to being a team player and open to future professional development. Without progress in the relationship, future attempts to work with this teacher will only fall on someone who is once bitten, twice shy.
In this scenario the Crucial Confrontation stems from the superintendents initiative of enforcing professional dress code via teacher observational reports. Although the teacher was aware of the superintendent’s intent of dress code enforcement she/he knew that there was no situational relevance to her/his ‘needing improvement’ in this area and therefore would not sign off on the report. The teacher was clear about her/his focus, stayed external, explained what and did not focus on the why during discussions with the superintendent. The teacher also kept focus on the facts rather than dealing in obscure vagaries. The teacher stayed clear of absolutes as absolutes only share conclusions not emerging facts. Finally the teacher ended with a question, ‘how does the professional dress initiative concern me?’ By asking this specific question it allowed the superintendent to state her/his response and share her/his story (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 104). The final step in this crucial confrontation was to agree on how to proceed. The plan as agreed upon by both the teacher and the superintendent made sure all details and expectations had been resolved. In this scenario the superintendent recognized her/his error in dress code enforcement via teacher observations and the lack of communication prior to initiative enforcement. After numerous discussions the teachers report was changed to reflect the individual situation. In the end both the teacher and the superintendent knew where she/he stood after the confrontation has been resolved (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, 2004 p. 205-8).
Godard, J. (2011). Industrial relations, the economy, and society. (4 ed.). Concord, Ontario: Captus Press Inc.
Watson, Tony. 1987. Sociology, Work and Industry, 2nd Ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Scott, Susan. (2002). Fierce Conversations; having success in work and life one conversation at a time.. Manhatten: Leadership Lane.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2004). Crucial confrontations: tools for resolving broken promises, violated expectations, and bad behavior. (p. 284). McGraw-Hill Professional.