Bob Best, PhD
Founding Associate Dean for Administrative and Faculty Affairs
University of South Carolina School of Medicine - Greenville
Wendy Hobson-Rohrer, MD, MSPH
Associate Dean for Faculty Development, School of Medicine
Associate Vice President for Health Sciences Education
University of Utah
One of the most challenging aspects of the role of the faculty affairs professional is the need to address interpersonal conflict. As faculty affairs professionals, we serve faculty who are typically smart, independent, articulate, and skilled in the art of debate. Confronting such colleagues in the midst of toxic conflict can be emotionally vexing. Consequently, it is important to prepare carefully, maintain a position of compassionate curiosity, avoid assumptions, and control emotions well as soon as it becomes clear that a conflict merits attention. Not all conflict is destructive, however. Constructive conflict can be a driving force for positive change and innovation if it can be harnessed and managed well.
Conflict in Perspective
Runde and Flanagan define conflict as “any situation in which interdependent people have apparently incompatible interests, goals, principles, or feelings.”1 Leaders in the academic world will always encounter conflict. Most faculty perceive conflict as negative, yet it behooves a faculty affairs dean to differentiate toxic conflict from generative conflict. Healthy or generative conflict is conflict that advances the aims of the team or individuals involved and preserves their working relationships. In contrast, unhealthy or destructive conflict fails to advance the aims of the team and/or erodes trust and damages relationships. Both generative and destructive conflict are at work in nearly every medical school. The key is to learn to differentiate and manage different types of conflict effectively to reduce the impact of destructive conflict to a minimum and cultivate healthy ideological conflict as a resource for innovation, growth, and problem-solving. One framing perspective is to maintain a focus on the team and its mission.
Generative conflict within a group is a force that provokes members of that group to consider diverse perspectives and refine their ideas. It is generative in the sense that it creates a deeper understanding of the opportunities and challenges the group is facing and/or the methods that might be applied to addressing them. Generative conflict is a powerful and creative force, but it requires members of the group to set egos aside and embrace ideas that conflict with their own thinking with a measure of curiosity.
Attributes of generative conflict:
- Accelerates change.
- Improves capacity for problem-solving.
- Can result in better relationships, morale, and deeper commitment.
- Increases productivity.
- Stimulates personal growth and insight.
- Encourages debate, discussion, and productive arguments.
- Accelerates progress toward goals.
- Helps define commitment and shared expectations.
- Increases participant voice in decisions.
- Strengthens the team.
- Opens new perspectives.
- Improves the environment for productive innovation.
In contrast, destructive conflict serves to undermine the group and its mission. It alienates individuals and produces an array of negative emotions that erode the conditions of trust and respect that underlie cohesive pursuit of the mission, and it reduces the creativity and energy that might otherwise be focused on work of the faculty (teaching, learning, research, and administration). Destructive conflict may increase turnover of valued faculty and staff, increase absenteeism, reduce the overall level of engagement, and in serious cases lead to legal actions against the institution. It is vital therefore to learn to investigate conflict quickly when conflict arises, determine the action that needs to be taken, and engage the most appropriate persons within the organization to address it. It is essential for the faculty affairs professional to recognize conflict, become comfortable asking questions to determine the nature of the conflict, develop faculty in their willingness and ability to engage in healthy conflict, and address toxic conflict quickly and decisively.
Unhealthy or toxic conflict:
- Ruins relationships.
- Breeds distrust.
- Redirects energy of the individuals or team toward unproductive activity.
- Compromises conditions necessary for productive team work (transparency, open communication, etc.).
Fundamentals for Managing Your Response to Conflict
When destructive conflict arises, intentionality is important. It begins with understanding one’s own emotions, fears, and anxieties and gaining full control of them. It is valuable to plan out the encounter when preparing to address conflict, being careful to remain patient, open, and curious in order to understand more fully and avoid making incorrect assumptions. Anticipate your own emotions and reactions, and plan how to manage them if they arise. Finally, hoping that conflict will resolve itself is not a strategy — it is merely an avoidance mechanism. Conflict is best caught in its earliest stages, when it can be addressed in the least formal manner possible. Establishing a culture of candor in which compassionate but direct conversation is the norm can promote harmony among faculty and staff alike.
Organizational Resources to Consider
Faculty affairs professionals do not necessarily need to be experts in conflict resolution, yet they do need to know where to access resources at their institution. Particularly when individuals engage in unhealthy conflict, sometimes the faculty member (or student or staff member) needs assistance in managing or resolving the conflict. This may involve coaching, mediation, or intervention by a third party. Many universities offer these services.
- The ombudsman is an independent faculty member who provides strictly confidential, impartial, and informal conflict resolution and problem-solving services.
- Leadership courses offer sessions on communication and negotiation, as well as conflict resolution.
- Executive coaching is increasingly popular amongst academic leaders. A coach guides the faculty member through personal self-reflection and assessments to improve their academic game.
- Other resources include risk management and mediator services.
- A faculty affairs dean may wish to take a certificate course on conflict resolution or mediation.
Relevance to GFA Membership
Destructive and generative conflict are both powerful forces, and they are ubiquitous on medical school campuses. Left unaddressed, toxic conflict may be costly and put the institution at risk. Consequently, it is essential that the faculty affairs professional becomes adept at addressing destructive conflict. Conversely, the ability to cultivate generative conflict can serve as a resource to enhance creativity and innovation, two key elements of success in academic medical centers.
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