Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 8 — Conflict: Managing it Creatively

Last updated in September 2019

Conflict: Managing it Creatively
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  • the nature of conflict
  • conflict management tools
  • their role in facilitating discussion and resolving conflict


Conflict represents a clash between multiple realities or points of view. We may clash or struggle over any number of things, including ideas, needs, interests, values, agendas, and cultural misunderstandings. People may experience conflict because they are in competition for the same things, such as resources, power, or prestige. Diverse points of view can cause conflict. Anytime people interact, the potential for conflict exists. When we talk about parties in conflict, “parties” can refer to individuals, groups, organizations, communities, cultures and societies.

It is important, even reassuring, to remember that conflict is a normal and inevitable part of life: “Conflict is inevitable in a setting where people have different points of view and freedom of expression is encouraged. The effects of conflict can be either disruptive and destructive or creative and constructive, depending upon whether the persons involved can work toward mutual understanding or simply an agreement to differ without disrespect. Inability to cope with conflict constructively and creatively leads to increased hostility, antagonism, and divisiveness; clear thinking disintegrates, and prejudice and dogmatism come to prevail…”[1]

There are many references to conflict resolution but in many cases, resolution may not be the appropriate goal. Conflict management is often the preferred approach.

If managed well, conflict can lead to:

  • Increased understanding of issues, factors and points of view
  • Greater group cohesion through renewal of mutual respect and confidence in the group’s ability to work together effectively
  • Improved self-knowledge through examination of goals, values and focus
  • Improved awareness of the inherent confirmation bias that we all exhibit
  • Openness to change and adaptation
  • Improved trust in the process and the people involved
  • Increased collaboration
  • Informed decisions rather than the forced agreements of “group think”

Conflict is not a bad thing and conflict management processes and techniques can be learned and practised. In education, where constructive conflict is necessary for intellectual debate, new ideas and creative solutions – conflict, at an appropriate level, should be welcomed. Conflict must be managed – to encourage and optimize the benefits it can bring to informed decision-making and the building of productive relationships.


Participating as a member of a board of trustees calls upon our intellect and our hearts, as well as our skills. People bring to any important conversation a wide range of experiences, perspectives and assumptions. Wherever individuals with strong convictions work together there will be differences; how we engage and manage those differences determines whether such conflict will get in the way of our collective wisdom, or, enable it to emerge.

What makes boards of trustees strong can also be the source of conflict since boards:

  • are a collective of democratically elected individuals representing diverse constituencies and responsive to different pressures. The more diverse the board is, the more they are challenged to manage sources of conflict.
  • involve passionate, caring people.
  • can struggle with being unified and focused in terms of mission and goals in the face of many important demands (the board’s multi-year strategic plan is essential to staying focused on a common, agreed-upon set of goals – learn more in Module 6 — The Strategic Role and Multi-year Strategic Planning).
  • require shared leadership by a board of trustees and chief executive officer/director of education.
  • operate in a dynamic, and at times, adversarial, political context.

Given these characteristics, it is not surprising that management of conflict is a recurring challenge. The origins of the conflict often relate to:

  • Individual styles and traits
  • Perceived unhelpful behaviours and ineffective communication
  • Lack of information
  • Differing views of what information is critical to decision-making
  • Differing interpretations of existing information
  • Individual interests related to the issues and actions of the board
  • Power and influence dynamics within the board
  • Values-based conflict related to essential principles


Conflict among board members

Conflict on the board of trustees can arise from differences between or among individual members or member factions. Varying perspectives can sometimes seem irreconcilable. At times, long-standing unresolved disputes from the past may manifest in oppositional behaviours in the present. Occasionally, boards may splinter into factions based upon competing priorities and positions. An effective board chair can be influential in managing the conflict. This involves achieving a balance between encouraging the airing of conflicting views until a productive resolution has been reached and knowing when to step in to make sure that the conflict does not prevent the board from achieving its goals and making necessary and timely decisions. The chair should be careful not to add to conflict by making peremptory rulings and cutting off discussion prematurely. An effective chair will set the tone, clarify the decisions that need to be reached, and make sure that all trustees have all the information needed to make informed decisions. The chair should be aware of potential conflicts and be proactive in mitigating the impact of conflicts before they arise at the board table.

The chair should be a skilled “sailor”. They must be ever mindful of the changes in wind and water conditions to ensure safe arrival at a final destination. For more information, please refer to Module 15 – What Makes a Great Board Chair?

Conflict between the board and the director

Differences between the board of trustees and the director are often structural in nature, that is, they have to do with the boundaries of each other’s roles and responsibilities. Trust is a huge factor in the board-director relationship. Boards that take ownership of their primary governance role through strategic decision-making are more likely to have greater trust in the director when the time comes for their decisions to be operationalized. In contrast, boards exhibit less trust when they involve themselves with overseeing operational decisions. Clarity about the respective roles and responsibilities of the board and the director are an essential tool in managing conflict. As with all relationships, there is a dynamic element. Continued vigilance on behalf of the board and director allow for maintenance of a healthy, respectful culture. For more information, please refer to Module 3 – Roles and Responsibilities.

Conflict between the organization and its constituency

Sometimes the decisions of the board can be challenged by individuals or groups that are part of the board’s constituency. This can arise whenever people become unhappy with specific budget or policy directions being undertaken by the board. Open communication with the public is critical to ensure that they can become informed about decisions and, wherever possible, the rationale behind the decisions. Boards should review their policies and bylaws related to community engagement on a regular basis. It is important for boards to be transparent and open, as well as be perceived as transparent and open.

“Keep your friends close and your critics closer” (Sun Tzu). This is often a significant challenge for individuals and boards. It helps to recognize that your critics provide essential information that will help the board improve its services/supports and processes.


  • Pay attention to good interpersonal communications

    No amount of written policy statements or role descriptions can substitute for regular attention to good communications practices in board meetings and electronic communication. Boards of trustees and senior staff need to have a conversation about such practices on a regular basis. Meeting “ground rules” can help. Boards should devote some time, at least once a year, and at each new board orientation or when a new trustee joins the board, to reflect on and discuss good communication practices. On an individual level this includes balancing “inquiry” (asking questions of one another) and “advocacy” (stating our own viewpoint), being aware of our assumptions, and being more intentional in listening to one another. Board members can be more effective if each person puts into practice the principle that one should “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”[2]

  • Operate with the Multi-Year Strategic Plan (MYSP) in mind

    Under the Education Act, each board of trustees is required to create a multi-year strategic plan to help articulate goals, objectives and outcomes. Focusing your messaging around your board’s key values or belief statements serves as a guide to building strong, predictable relationships. See Module 6 – The Strategic Role and Multi-year Strategic Planning for more information.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities

    Boards must strive to clarify the roles and responsibilities of individual members (especially the chair) and the board’s role in relation to staff. This is helpful in establishing mutual respect. An annual board communications training session is a logical place for such a discussion. Job descriptions outlining duties and responsibilities can be helpful but are seldom sufficient for clarifying roles, especially where board and staff responsibilities overlap such as in determining and working on strategic objectives. See Module 3 – Roles and Responsibilities for more information.

  • Help develop a skilled board chair

    An effective board chair is critical to managing conflict. Such effectiveness comes from clarity about the chair’s role, personal integrity, an understanding of the importance of process and the liberal use of proven facilitation techniques. A chair needs the board’s support in assuming an active role in guiding the board. See Module 15 – What Makes a Great Board Chair for more information.

  • Learn about conflict resolution processes

    Boards and directors can really benefit from some familiarity with negotiation and conflict resolution processes before a conflict arises. Some understanding will help the organization determine the appropriate mechanism for a particular situation, including when outside assistance might be of value. Conflict resolution is regarded as a core skill area for today’s leaders. It is a topic that should be introduced as part of board training and be added to the list of professional development goals for senior staff, particularly the director.

  • Establishing a code of conduct for the board

    Under O. Reg. 246/18: Members of School Boards – Code of Conduct, every board must adopt a code of conduct that applies to the members of the board. Boards are required to develop a written code of conduct that sets standards and rules for their relationship with one another, with the director and with senior staff. See Module 17 – Trustee Code of Conduct for more information.

  • Encourage board self-assessment

    Formal evaluation processes for the board and director are important mechanisms for direct communication and action that can improve working relationships. Boards should evaluate themselves and should regularly evaluate the director according to pre-determined criteria. See Module 5 — Performance Review – Director of Education and Module 21 — Board Self-Assessment: Governance Performance for more information.


Responses to Conflict

We all have emotional, cognitive and physical responses to conflict. It is important to pay attention to these responses as they often tell us more about what the true source of our discomfort is. By noticing our responses to conflict, we may get better insights into how to resolve the problem.

Emotional responses: feelings ranging from fear or anger to despair or confusion. Emotional responses can be misunderstood because people think that other people feel the same way they do. Differing emotional responses can be confusing and even threatening.

Cognitive responses: thoughts and ideas, sometimes in the form of self-talk. (What do they think they are doing? How selfish!) Cognitive responses can contribute to emotional and physical responses.

Physical responses: heightened stress, bodily tension, increased perspiration, tunnel vision, shallow or accelerated breathing, nausea, rapid heartbeat, etc. Biologically, we are programmed for flight or fight. These responses can be controlled to a certain degree by using stress management techniques. If physical responses are controlled effectively, a calmer emotional environment may result.[3]

“While perceptions of others cannot be controlled, individual trustees (and directors) can choose to act in a manner that reflects their internal compass and core beliefs and not in a way that creates perceptions and reactions that are negative and counterproductive to achieving their goals.”[4]

Conflict Styles

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a model for handling conflict[5]:

Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The model organizes 5 conflict management styles based on two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. Here are the five conflict management styles:

  1. Accommodating – This is when you cooperate to a high-degree, and it may be at your own expense, and actually work against your own goals, objectives, and desired outcomes. This approach is effective when the other party is the expert or has a better solution. It can also be effective for preserving future relations with the other party.
  2. Avoiding – This is when you simply avoid the issue. You aren’t helping the other party reach their goals, and you aren’t assertively pursuing your own. This works when the issue is trivial or when you have no chance of winning. It can also be effective when the issue would be very costly. It’s also very effective when the atmosphere is emotionally charged and you need to create some space. Sometimes issues will resolve themselves, but “hope is not a strategy”, and, in general, avoiding is not a good long-term strategy.
  3. Collaborating – This is where you partner or pair up with the other party to achieve both of your goals. This is how you break free of the “win-lose” paradigm and seek the “win-win.” This can be effective for complex scenarios where you need to find a novel solution. This can also mean re-framing the challenge to create a bigger space and room for everybody’s ideas. The downside is that it requires a high-degree of trust and reaching a consensus can require a lot of time and effort to get everybody on board and to synthesize all the ideas.
  4. Competing – This is the “win-lose” approach. You act in a very assertive way to achieve your goals, without seeking to cooperate with the other party, and it may be at the expense of the other party. This approach may be appropriate for emergencies when time is of the essence, or when you need quick, decisive action, and people are aware of and support the approach.
  5. Compromising – This is the “lose-lose” scenario where neither party really achieves what they want. This requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation. It may be appropriate for scenarios where you need a temporary solution, or where both sides have equally important goals. The trap is to fall into compromising as an easy way out, when collaborating would produce a better solution. [6]

It will always help to be open to adopting a conflict management style that suits the situation you find yourself in even when that means stepping outside your preferred style. This will be influenced by such considerations as: time pressure; whether important priorities or values are at stake; the importance of your relationship with the other party; the respective power of the parties to the conflict. Choosing the optimum style for the situation goes a long way in resolving the problem, respecting people’s legitimate interests, mending damaged working relationships and setting the stage for sound decision-making.

Six-Step Conflict Resolution Process

The following is a collaborative approach to managing conflict by Kimberly A. Benjamin. The process offers all participants a voice and ensures that all relevant information to reach a solution is available.

  1. Clarify what the disagreement is. Clarifying involves getting to the heart of the conflict. The goal of this step is to get both sides to agree on what the disagreement is. To do this, you need to discuss what needs are not being met on both sides of the conflict and ensure mutual understanding. During the process, obtain as much information as possible on each side’s point of view. Continue to ask questions until you are certain that all parties involved (you and those on either side of the conflict) understand the issue.
  2. Establish a common goal for both parties. In this step of the process, both sides agree on the desired outcome of the conflict. “When people know that they’re working towards the same goal, then they’re more apt to participate truthfully to make sure that they reach that end goal together.”[7] To accomplish this, discuss what each party would like to see happen and find a commonality in both sides as a starting point for a shared outcome. That commonality can be as simple as “both sides want to end the conflict.”
  3. Discuss ways to meet the common goal. This involves listening, communicating, and brainstorming together. Continue with both sides working together to discuss ways that they can meet the goal they agreed on in step 2. Keep going until all the options are exhausted.
  4. Determine the barriers to the common goal. In this step of the process, the two parties acknowledge what has brought them into the conflict and talk about what problems may prevent a resolution. Understanding the possible problems that may be encountered along the way lets you proactively find solutions and have plans in place to handle issues. Define what can and cannot be changed about the situation. For the items that cannot be changed, discuss ways of getting around those road blocks.
  5. Agree on the best way to resolve the conflict. Both parties need to come to a conclusion on the best resolution. Start by identifying solutions that both sides can live with. Ask both sides and see where there is common ground. Then start to discuss the responsibility each party has in maintaining the solution. It’s also important to use this opportunity to get to the root cause to ensure this conflict will not come up again. “A lot of times when we try to fix problems, we get so caught up in fixing it that we do not identify what we need to do so it doesn’t happen.”[8]
  6. Acknowledge the agreed upon solution and determine the responsibilities each party has in the resolution. Both sides need to own their responsibility in the resolution of the conflict and express aloud what they have agreed to. After both parties have acknowledged a win-win situation, ask both parties to use phrases such as “I agree to…” and “I acknowledge that I have responsibility for…”

Note: It is always helpful to record what was decided to ensure there is no confusion at a later point.

This principled negotiation method of focusing on basic interests, mutually satisfying options, and fair standards typically results in a wise solution: “The method permits you to reach a gradual consensus on a joint decision efficiently without all the transactional costs of digging in to positions only to have to dig yourself out of them. And separating the people from the problem allows you to deal directly and empathetically with others as a human being, thus making possible an amicable agreement.”[9]

Managing Conflict Situations

Ask Yourself:

  • Am I practicing active listening? Do I fully understand what is being said? Have I tried rephrasing it or asking questions if not? Have I offered encouragement/support or asked how the person feels?
  • Who are the people involved in the conflict? What is their role in the education system?
  • Why does this conflict matter?
  • What are the obvious sources of conflict in the situation you are dealing with?
  • What might the underlying sources of conflict be?
  • What possible conflict styles would you anticipate in this situation?
  • What emotional, cognitive and physical reactions to conflict could be at play for the various participants? What is the role of the trustee in this situation? Why is it important for the trustee to handle the conflict effectively?
  • What information does the trustee need in order to understand the issue better? Who should they speak to? What questions do they need to ask? What means of communication would be the most useful? What human or other resources could they call on to help her before they respond?
  • How could the Six-Step Conflict Resolution Process be applied in this situation?


The leadership role of a school board trustee is played out in the public domain and involves high degrees of collaboration with colleague members of the board, with staff, with parents and with the broader community. In all human interactions, conflict is inevitable. A skilled trustee will have a belief in the power of effective conflict management to engage others in creating positive change and building an education system that gives everyone a voice.


  1. The Academic Administrator Grid: A Guide to Developing Effective Management Teams, Blake, 1981

  2. The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, S. Covey, 1989

  3. The practice of facilitation: Managing group processes and solving problems, Webne-Behrman, 1998

  4. Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together, Davis Campbell, Michael Fullan, 2019, page 48

  5. Conflict Styles at a Glance, Thomas-Kilmann,

  6. Conflict Mode Instrument, Kilmann, 1973

  7. 6 Steps to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace, Kimberly A. Benjamin,

  8. 6 Steps to Conflict Resolution in the Workplace, Kimberly A. Benjamin,

  9. Getting to Yes, W. Ury, 2011

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