When conflict becomes personal

On Board Online • January 26, 2015

By Brian Benzel

Leadership, especially in public settings, occasionally attracts controversy. We understand that even with well-considered procedures and efforts to ensure fair consideration of complex issues, conflicts will arise, often from unsuspected sources. At times, these conflicts are personal or become personal. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to ease the pain of a personal conflict with a citizen, a fellow board member, or a staff member. Additionally, easy access to social media and unfiltered and unverified information in the hands of just about anyone can spread conflict quickly.

The truth is that eliminating the likelihood of personalized conflicts coming your way may not be possible. But how you respond is within your control-and affects how others respond. Four strategies can help you prepare and manage your response while easing the pain and calming, rather than inflaming, the situation.

1. Create clear, deliberate, and transparent decision-making processes. Such processes can anticipate and diminish the potential for conflict. Make sure the process includes adequate time for board consideration of issues. Build a decision-making process that respects the need for public awareness, understanding, and input. Such processes should focus upon informing the staff and the public about the nature of the challenge and the need for action. Follow the adopted decision-making process as fully as the study of the issue allows. If changes become necessary, make adjustments publicly and with a full explanation.

2. Stay calm in the face of personal allegations or attacks. This response is often hard to achieve because a natural adrenaline rush can kick in and create a "fight or flight" situation. Keep your ego in check and try not to respond in this state. Rather, give yourself time to think through the reason for the attack. Talk with the superintendent, a trusted family member, a friend, or a board colleague to help you think through how to address the issue. Use this time to thoughtfully determine the best response and ways to direct your message to what the antagonists are saying to you or about you without escalating emotions.

3. Seek to resolve the conflict with the person or persons involved. If necessary, engage the support of a third party and seek a face-to-face meeting in a safe place with the third party acting as a mediator. This effort should focus on areas of shared interests and on discovering common ground between you and the critics. Often, identifying the underlying conflict will uncover differences that both parties can clarify, resolve, or agree to disagree about.

4. Recognize that you cannot please everyone. You must keep making decisions and taking the actions your leadership role demands. Trying to be all things to all people will render your work so unclear and ineffective that you'll be unhappy and so will others. Listen always, be proactive and flexible, but accept that conflict and disagreement may occasionally be inevitable. Experience can help you develop an approach to your leadership so you remain responsive but don't take things personally. It can also lead you to be clearer about your goals while seeking to understand diverse views. Your willingness to re-examine your views and adjust them based on what you learn can ease tensions and help resolve underlying causes of conflict.

Make no mistake, when the conflict becomes personal, board members must recognize the source of the conflict and control their response in ways that don't fuel the fire. Body language and ill-considered words spoken when angry may be used against you later. Therefore, calmly avoid the retort or response to a personalized effort to get under your skin. Instead, seek to meet with your critic and engage the issue while remaining focused on the district's established processes for dealing with decisions and differences.

The wise board takes advantage of opportunities to build effective decision-making processes and relationships. Being transparent and fair in the decision-making process is a strong defense for every board.

The effective board strives to educate its constituencies about the board's role, the timelines for decisions, and the underlying rationale for them. Whether it's a school closure, an attendance boundary change, or a disciplinary matter, the board seeks to find the facts before acting or commenting. Members listen patiently without becoming defensive or emotional. And they only take action after full deliberation.

The successful board knows finding a way to meet with the antagonist face-to-face is sometimes valuable. But, careful board members do so with a trusted third party to mediate the situation. If the conflict is based on factual errors, they can be corrected in this setting. Managing our responses with care and dignity to avoid the exchange of inappropriate comments with anyone is mandatory. This course is the duty and responsibility of anyone in a leadership role.


Brian Benzel has more than 30 years of experience working as a superintendent in the state of Washington. This article is reprinted from The Board, a semi-monthly publication that focuses on excellence in governance, with permission from The Master Teacher. Learn more at www.masterteacher.com/Board.

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