Departmental Conflict

Nina W. Brown

     This sixth and last essay about navigating the academic department will present some ideas about how group therapy concepts can be associated with departmental conflict, managing conflict with the department chair, with colleagues and between factions, costs for winning, contributions to the conflict, and personal goals.      

     Group therapy concepts re conflict  that may be helpful include but are not limited to using a group as a whole perspective for understanding some conflicts especially those between factions in the department (Bion, 1959), the use of therapeutic factors such as universality, existential factors, cohesion, altruism and dissemination of information to promote growth and development as well as positive outcomes (Yalom & Leszcz 2021), recognition of  group level resistance as this can indicate a deeper and more persistent problem (Rutan & Stone ), managing difficult group members both individuals and groups such as cliques (Brown, 2011), sub-groups as departmental factions (Agazarian, 1997), and the role of possible transference such as sibling rivalry.  The primary concept is the use of conflict resolution strategies in the group setting, i.e. the department if you are in a position to do so such as chairing a committee, or as the department chair. 

General Guidelines For Managing Conflict

    There are four main guidelines, familiarity with university policies and procedures, have an understanding of the organizational structure and how it functions, engage only when your emotional intensity is moderate, and be judicious with social media.  Know the university policies and procedures that are in place that relate to your professional life as well as those associated with the particular conflict.  Identify the elements that may be relevant and what procedures are needed to implement the policy. Sample policies and procedures are annual reviews, evaluation procedures and policies, tenure and promotion, assignments, release time, scholarship and research expectations, professional service, and resources available for faculty.

Understand the particular organizational structure and how it functions in case you have to seek consultation, conflict resolution, or initiate an appeal of a decision.  It is very helpful to know the key personnel at every level; department, college, and university, to understand the difference in the authority that line or staff administrators have, and to reflect on how your present actions may influence future decisions.   It is best to only engage with others when your emotional intensity is moderate as that will enable you to not get caught up in your personal feelings that may be overwhelming and prevent you from presenting your thoughts and ideas or could open you to catching the other person(s) feelings.  Having moderate emotional intensity will allow you to use your cognitive and affective experiencing expeditiously. Very important is to not use social media to vent, rant, complain and the like, or to criticize others.  You may think that only the people who you have chosen to have access to your postings will see them, but you cannot be completely assured that one or more of them will not share the post with others, who may then pass them on to someone who is involved in the conflict.  You do not have any control over reposts.

How Faculty Can Manage Their Reactions

     It’s not so much that there is a conflict that can be distressing to some or many faculty, it’s more that they have difficulty managing their reactions and the resulting feelings that can be difficult to relinquish.  In addition, some conflicts can result in resentments and grudges that can linger for a considerable time, even years.  Even assuming that some faculty will work to try and resolve conflicts and reach mutually agreeable compromises, there are still some faculty who will have difficulty managing their reactions and feelings.  Following are some suggestions that can be helpful when there is departmental conflict. First, determine what your characteristic way of responding to conflicts is and how satisfying is that characteristic way.  Some common ways to respond to conflicts are to try to ignore it, to deny that there is a conflict, to withdraw, to retreat behind a barrier of some type, or to attack.  All of these can be effective depending on the nature of the conflict and what is helpful is to see if you can employ any of them under differing circumstances.  For example, for some departmental conflicts withdrawing can be effective to protect the person. 

Constructive Personal Strategies

     There are some constructive personal strategies that may be helpful, some preventive strategies, and presented are some actions that are not recommended.  Recommended are 6 constructive personal strategies that faculty can use when they encounter a conflict whether they are directly involved or on the periphery; stay aware, balance personal and professional, try to stay focused on essentials and facts, have a support system, and modify or reduce some unconscious grandiosity. Trying to avoid or ignore conflicts are seldom helpful.  It is much more helpful to know and understand what is happening, but to not add to the conflict in any way.  Before taking any actions try to reflect on how you may be able to balance your personal and professional needs and aspirations.  Asking yourself if engaging with the conflict will aid you in any way.   Try to stay focused on essentials and facts. Use trusted sources to verify information to reduce misinformation, disinformation and just plain lies.  It is also helpful to have a support system separate from the program or department where you can talk about your concerns and feelings without fear of offending or retaliation.  Finally, relinquish or modify your unconscious grandiosity which can cause you distress because thinking that you can change the situation or person is futile.  It is unlikely that you will be able to make them do what you want them to do, to always see things from your perspective, and/or to think that you are “right”.

     Protective Strategies and Actions that will enable you to be less distressed about conflicts include bur are not limited to managing your feelings and competitive needs, try to balance your aspirations and professional relationships, understand the role for existential therapeutic factors, and to look for alternatives that will be helpful to all involved in the conflict.  Since you are in charge of your feelings and competitive needs, you have the power and control over these and can use them constructively and not in ways that are destructive to your relationships.  Conflicts can sometimes upset the balance for your aspirations and professional relationships and it is easy to lose sight of how both are beneficial especially when there is the desire to “win”. Reflecting on some existential factors can help you manage your feelings and distress. The primary ones are to remember that life is unfair and always to be treated fairly is not reasonable, that struggling is the human condition and this will continue throughout you life, and that the best and most comforting solutions at the time are to have meaning and purpose for your work, your life

     There are also some actions that you may want to avoid; ingratiation, head in the sand, disengagement, seeking revenge, forming a clique, and/or to exhibit grandiosity, arrogance, or contempt for the conflict or the people involved. 

Some Pre-considerations for Conflict Resolution

     Costs for winning in conflict situations is seldom presented as most faculty are focused on no losing.  However, winning also has some costs such as impaired relationships, the level of emotional investment you have to make, and/or the failure to connect with a colleague or colleagues in a meaningful and helpful way. While winning can promote feelings of satisfaction, safety and adequacy that you were able to remove perceived threats and will be better able to survive, these feelings may not balance the costs for winning.  This is one of the reasons why compromises can be a better solution for some, not all, conflicts. 

     Another topic that receives little attention are the personal contributions you make to the conflict.  While most may think that the other person(s) is(are) causing the conflict it is also possible that each person in the conflict is making a contribution.  Some possible contributions are being indifferent to the person or topic, the level of emotional intensity especially when that is high for you, the need to be right, prevail or to win,

     It is helpful to also consider the possible goals in conflict situations.  Example of possible goals for you and for others in the conflict are to win, to defend self or value, to coerce, to seduce allies, to bully and intimidate, to gain attention, to get admiration, to survive, and/or to get revenge for real or imagined injuries.  The most positive goal is to seek compromise for most or many conflicts but to also recognize that some conflicts are incapable of compromise, or that compromising some cherished standards and values are not helpful.

Tips

     What follows are some brief tips for managing conflicts with the department chair, with colleagues, between department factions and, when nothing seems to be working to help resolve the conflict(s).   

     Tips for managing conflict with the department chair include intentional use of formality for interactions and meetings where you resist the usual academic give and take, use concise statement of the problem, be prepared to offer one or more possible solutions, and to stay focused on the essentials.  It is always helpful to remember that the chair is in an authority position.

     Tips for managing conflict with colleagues depends highly on the current relationship you have with the particular person.  Generally, it is helpful to begin any dialogue with an affirmation of the relationship.  Other helpful and constructive actions include listening and reflect their perspectives of the problem, to keep your emotional intensity at a moderate level, and to stay focused on the essentials and your goal for conflict resolution.

     Tips for managing conflict with departmental factions calls for a lot of emotional maturity.  The best ways to help manage this type of conflict are to understand all perspectives of the issue as there are likely to be many different perspectives, to focus on primary issues that are parts of the conflict, to gather as many facts as possible before taking a stand or even offering an opinion,

and to not engage in speculations, denigration, criticism, gossip either in person or on social media.  You can serve as a model for how other faculty can effectively manage this conflict.

A tip for when strategies do not seem to work.  Some conflicts seem to defy conventional resolution but are still troubling to you.  When this seems to be the case, the best strategy is to focus on your primary work which for most faculty involves teaching, scholarship/research, and professional service.  Your time and energy may be effectively employed to do some of the following; seek enhancers for some aspect of your work, highlight and publicize your professional accomplishments such as in a blog or newsletter, become a member of a university or professional organization committees, present more at professional meetings, work with students to publicize their accomplishments, and the like.  It can also be helpful to use self-enhancers such as journaling, creative endeavors, and/or inspirational guides, engage in recreation and exercise, volunteer in the community, read a book and other self-enhancing activities.  Finally, learn to better contain your emotions, be polite to colleagues, chair and so on, and make your interactions courteous, civil, and formal to be distant, cordial, and collegial.

Summary

     This final essay focused on managing conflicts in academic departments.  All six essays in this series were focused on suggestions for faculty on how to navigate an academic department as all or most are ambiguous and have a lot of uncertainty.  What was presented was brief without much description or explanation but can be used to trigger other thoughts that better fit a particular department.  Hopefully, some of what the essays presented will be useful.

References

Agazarian, Y. (1997) Systems-centered therapy for groups. NY. The Guilford Press

Brown, N. (2022). Becoming a group leader. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Bion, W. (1959) Experiences in group. Tavistock: London

Rutan, S. J. & Stone, N. W. (2000). Psychodynamic Groups Psychotherapy (3rd ed.).

NY: Guilford Press.

Yalom, I. & M. Leszcz (2021). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. New York: 

            Basic Books