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Addressing Inter-staff Issues as Principal
Leadership Insights

PD for Principals: Helping Principals Address Inter-staff Issues

By Terry Wilhelm April 21, 2015

In my past posts for district leaders, I’ve suggested various methods to assess the strengths and growth areas of principals. One area that may come to light in these assessments is a principal’s discomfort with addressing conflicts among staff members.

Without intervention, staff conflicts can impact learning

One (male) principal I worked with dismissed these conflicts as “a bunch of squabbling women.” I was not sure whether the principal’s unwillingness to become involved was an example of discomfort that breaks out along gender lines, but when I asked gentle but probing questions it was clear that he consistently turned a blind eye to interpersonal problems between staff members. As a result, certain staff members developed very negative histories with each other, which impacted their ability to work as a team for the best interest of students.

Acting like grown-ups: the art of principal-facilitated conflict resolution

A highly effective principal I worked with — this time a woman — used a simple technique when a staff member came to her with a complaint about someone else. She would say, “I can talk to [the other person] if that’s what you want me to do. Of course, she will know that you came to me and complained. It would be much better if you would talk to her about this yourself. Would you like to practice with me?” Usually, the complaining party would agree to role-play, and as a result, most often these matters were resolved with a minimum of fuss.

Confronting the issue

This same school received a teacher via transfer who had a reputation for causing turmoil on every staff he joined. Within a week, his team came to the principal with a complaint. She responded with her standard offer, and when his own team confronted the newly arrived teacher, he fell in line immediately. Although he was never a model team player, his dysfunctional behavior was challenged at every turn by colleagues who refused to put up with it.

I used this same strategy myself with great success when I became principal of a school with longstanding rifts between staff members. Unfortunately, when a paraprofessional had an issue with a teacher, she rarely agreed to role-play with me and then confront the teacher herself, meaning I had to find ways to work with the offender directly. For the most part, however, teachers willingly confronted other teachers respectfully and successfully. It was a turning point for my school.

Train principals to facilitate conflict resolution between staff members

As a district leader, consider helping your reluctant principal to move toward the use of this approach. The first time he succeeds in facilitating teachers’ resolving of their own conflicts, his courage will increase. This will be a great asset when he encounters conflicts that he alone must address, and as he begins to do so, the culture of the school will become much more healthy for staff, and ultimately for students.

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