Field Notes: Conflict avoidance: A great way to make things even worse!

"Field Notes" is an occasional Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org. 

by Ginnifer Cié Gee, EdD, Director of Registration and Records, The University of Texas San Antonio

Raise your hand if you live a higher education utopian dream of peaceful collegiate interactions, free from any form of conflict or misunderstanding.

Anyone? Hello? Is this thing on?

Conflict is part of our workaday lives, and learning how to handle it is a key professional competency. Here are some tips for doing it with grace.

The good fight

Certain types of conflict can be good.  Differences of opinions and ideas in the workplace debated in a collegiate manner are vital to critical thinking, diversity, and growth.  However, this is not the type of conflict that I am writing about today.  The type of conflict I’m addressing is the negative, seemingly insignificant type that gets into nooks and crannies and festers over months making the triumphant joy of working in higher education almost impossible. It is the kind of conflict that can be easily addressed, yet so many of us chose to believe if we just ignore it everything will be ok.  As higher education professionals, we need to understand what can prevent us from delivering excellence in service.  We must identify what stifles creativity and comradery.  Unaddressed conflict is one of those culprits to greatness.

The following examples are adapted from real life experiences, embellished for the reader’s enjoyment and optimal impact of the points I’m trying to make, and of course genericized.  Any similarity to specific higher education professionals is strictly coincidence. Of course, if you see yourself in one of these scenarios, then yes, it is written specifically for you! Enjoy.

Scenario #1: The Blanket Reprimand

Due to a change in policy, Friday office attire was given tighter restrictions.  For the most part, everyone in the office remembered to follow the rules, but John would always wear unsanctioned flip-flops on Fridays.  To make sure that John was in solid compliance, Frank, the office manager sent an office wide email to the entire staff reminding everyone that dress code violations were not tolerated. Frank knew John was the only one at fault, but he didn’t feel comfortable approaching John one on one. After the email was sent, worry and fear infected the office as groups huddled in corners analyzing their clothing and discussing if they were the target of the email.  However, John, the only true flip-flop felon, did not pick up on the subtle hint and continued to wear his flip flops.  This created friction with his coworkers as they believed he was getting away with breaking the rules.

Why do we send blanket reprimands to a group of innocent people when only one person needs addressing?  Because we are afraid of entering that scary realm of ‘possible’ conflict.  Office wide warnings or stricter rules for everyone to correct one person’s issue results in more conflict than if we simply addressed the violator directly.  Let’s break it down. By addressing this issue with John, Frank would not be diminishing John’s worth as a person, nor discounting his skills as a professional, nor refuting his value within the office.  He would simply be reminding John to follow the new dress code.  The ‘possible’ conflict that Frank is afraid of is spawning real conflict in the office from the rest of the employees.

Scenario #2 The One-Sided Conflict

One day after an off-campus meeting, Mary offered to drive her coworker Jill back to campus.  Jill got in Mary’s car and burst into tears.  Slightly alarmed, Mary asked what in the world was wrong.  Jill proceeded to purge all the suppressed conflict she had been carrying for a year about Mary.  Jill felt that Mary hated her and purposefully derailed all her ideas.  Jill pointed out that Mary never invited her to go get coffee and was cold and unapproachable.  Mortified, Mary sat in silence having absolutely no idea Jill had been upset for over a year.  Mary thought everything was fine with their relationship.  Mary was apologetic and wanted to know what specific interactions had caused these issues.  As Jill addressed this ‘one-sided’ conflict, she realized that some of her perceptions were actually inaccurate or misinterpreted.  Mary realized that she may have seen subtle hints of tension, but chose to ignore them.  

Think about Jill’s job performance and emotional well-being in the office over the past year if she has been harboring all this one-sided conflict? Speaking up took a lot of courage, but what prevented her from speaking up sooner?  Let’s break it down.  Even though some of Jill’s perceptions were realized to be false, at the time she was experiencing them they were completely real to her.  Perception trumps reality.  If you are presented with ‘perceived’ conflict, understand that the person coming to you is in a vulnerable position.  Respect how they are perceiving the situation.  Welcome their feedback.  We may find we aren’t as self-aware as we should be. At the first few signs of tension, Mary could have invited Jill for coffee and had an exploratory conversation.  Now, both are in a position where a lot of repair is needed on their professional relationship.  

Scenario #3 Passive Aggressive Conflict

Due to an office move, Jack was now sitting in the cubicle by Stanley. This was a strategic move because they work together on a project.  Stanley likes to listen to his voice messages on speaker phone.  This bothers Jack immensely and instead of addressing it, he allowed his annoyance to grow.  In a passive aggressive attempt to show frustration, Jack acquired a large file cabinet and placed it between their cubicles.  He then put boxes, and other obnoxiously large items on top so that all line of sight to Stanley was blocked.  Stanley became frustrated because now he had to get up and go around the blockade to converse with Jack or call on the phone from three feet away. The project they collaborate on has several issues.  Jack and Stanley’s supervisor, Laura, called a meeting to discuss the sub-par work on the project. Jack lost his cool and yelled across the table at Stanley.  Stanley has filed a complaint with Human Resources.  Laura knew there was tension between the two, but never chose to address it hoping it would work itself out.

Here we have the trifecta of conflict avoidance!  This is not perceived or possible conflict, it is real passive aggressive conflict that erupted into aggressive conflict. Let’s break it down. Even if Jack and Stanley wouldn’t address their issues, the supervisor should have been present enough to see that a file cabinet barrier was being constructed.  As an effective leader, Laura should have lead Jack and Stanley through their conflict, bringing it to light, allowing their differing perspectives to be heard, and redirected the focus to finding a solution.

Creating a conflict-aware environment

You may be thinking, ok sure, writing all this is easy, but do you follow your own advice?  Yes, I do.  Full disclosure, I am “Mary” from scenario #2.  That experience taught me to be more self-aware of how others are perceiving me, and how I am perceiving others.  “Jill” and I now have a professional relationship that is ten times better after we addressed this issue through several courageous conversations.  We have even taken our experience and turned it into a teaching opportunity and presented it at a conference.    

The last point that I would like to contribute is people need an environment that welcomes mature discussion of issues.   In some cases, establishment of an inclusive, safe space where people feel courageous conversations are welcomed and encouraged may be needed.  Addressing conflict cannot be accomplished through a fly by; time needs to be scheduled and the matter given proper attention no matter how insignificant it may seem.  Keep empathy in mind as you enter into your dialogue.  Try to gain understanding and get at the root of the issue. Building collaborative successful teams requires open communication and skilled conflict leadership.  Leading through conflict, results in more growth for all parties involved.