Navigating Conflict in the Education Workplace

Team leaders and power imbalances

Note: This is the first in a series of regular columns we hope to launch on Education-Forum.ca this year. If you have an idea for a column that you think would be useful to education workers in public education, please contact the Editor, Randy Banderob (editor@education-forum.ca).

Although it can be difficult to completely unpack the precise origins of workplace conflicts, I have found, through the mediations I have conducted involving OSSTF/FEESO members, the most common factor tends to involve a team leader as part of the mix. The position of team leader, whether it be a lead support staff member or a department head teacher or curriculum leader, can have the potential to create tensions among the group which, when not properly managed in a timely fashion, can lead to dysfunction and distrust. As OSSTF/FEESO members, although we do not hold supervisory powers over other members, power imbalances do exist—especially where team leaders and department heads are responsible for supporting a group of their colleagues. So, how do we balance and effectively work within this quasi-managerial framework, which if left unchecked can go awry? But before I get to some suggestions on how to navigate through group conflict with team leaders, I’d first like to consider a few other factors…

First, team leaders are not the enemy,even if they are using their leadership position to assist themselves to ‘climb the ladder.’ Too often in group mediation I find the group or department at a stalemate with their leader. This us versus them dynamic not only creates distrust, but halts any ability to productively move forward.

Second, team leaders should consider how they interact with others. Although you may consider yourself to be just the messenger between your manager and your team, there are ways to balance both without simply ramming every initiative down the throats of your colleagues. This all or nothing approach tends to create resistance among co-workers and impedes any possibility for change. And for the team leader who is only using their position to pad their CV to get a promotion, I would suggest that the most important skill that would be assessed when going for a promotion is not how many initiatives you have promoted, but rather how well you manage your team. I would also think that leading a dysfunctional department, filled with conflict, would send a red-flag to anyone considering promoting you.

What to do?

One of the underlying questions is: How do you juggle the pressure—either real or perceived—from your manager to implement initiatives while maximizing the buy-in/collaboration from your team and minimizing the resistance?

Some suggestions:

First—not every initiative needs to be taken so literally. Many educational initiatives and ministry policies are intentionally written with broad language—with every intention to allow for some latitude to fit into your specific domain. Use this as an opportunity to be creative!

Second—authentically and actively listen to your co-workers and allow for meaningful discussion and debate. A regular forum (such as team/department meetings) needs to take place to allow for this to happen. To be respected and trusted—and to encourage your team to speak freely—your colleagues need to be heard and acknowledged.

Finally, the notion of power in this group dynamic cannot be overlooked and I will unpack this concept further in a future column. However, I think that power—whether it’s actual or perceived—is often the elephant in the room. I find the topic of power, in its purest sense, is often tip-toed around among many union members across all sectors. We are proud to use quaint catch-phrases like, “a member is a member,” when in reality there are members who yield real power over other members. These real power dynamics and imbalances across all of our job classes and work sites requires more time to discuss, and in my opinion, data analysis and research to fully appreciate their impact on our members.

These powers vary from district to district, but usually include things like access to resources and the ability to timetable, not to mention being privy to information not shared with the rest of staff. These real power imbalances that exist in every work site in every district across Ontario are a contributing factor to many of the group conflicts that arise, most of which can be resolved through mediation; however, there are times where mediation is not appropriate and you may need to access support through your workplace rep. and your employer’s workplace harassment policy.

I appreciate that often these power imbalances are carefully constructed by the employer to carry out management’s agenda through often very broad/vague language outlining the job description of team leaders. And this should be considered and taken seriously when Bargaining Units are negotiating collective agreements. However, these job duties and titles should always be balanced with an understanding of where our roles begin and end as well as an appreciation that we are all in this together! And given the latitude in the job descriptions of some leadership roles, it seems all the more prudent to take a more cautionary approach when dealing with your team members. Just because the job description of your leadership role may be open to interpretation in some aspects, does not mean you need to push to find out where the limits are. The constraints can be found in how your team responds to your actions and if you have found mutual respect in your department and the ability to communicate openly, there is no need to push for more because you have found that balance, a perfect balance that will allow you to be creative!

Note: This is the first in a series of columns by Paul Wesley on how to workers in Public Education can deal with conflict in the workplace. If you have a suggestion for a column or you have a problem you want Paul to address, contact Editor, Randy Banderob (editor@education-forum.ca).

About Paul Wesley
Paul Wesley is a Chartered Mediator (C. Med.) and has a background in human rights, family, civil, health care and workplace mediation. Paul is a teacher at East York C.I. in District 12, Toronto and is currently Chair of OSSTF/FEESO's Mediation Services Resource Bank (MSRB).

1 Comment on Navigating Conflict in the Education Workplace

  1. Great piece. I am a retired member and former local VP in District 20. Your observations on climbing the ladder and throwing colleagues under the bus (my conclusion), were and continue to be challenges. Since 1997’s removal of administrators from the union, excellence has become compliance. It certainly is challenge which will only get worse. Your ideas hopefully will help members navigate these tricky waters.

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