Dealing with conflicts on the governing board

31 Dec

It irks me when I hear someone say that there is considerable merit when people row with one another.  My prickles rise further when they add that conflicts are good for the soul.  They aren’t.  They frequently create win-lose situations.  At its worst, the outcome of a conflict involving two or more ends up with blood on the carpet. I have observed on several occasions how destructive conflicts have been during and in between meetings of the governing board.   Conflicts occur for a host of reason.

The first reason is a primeval one.  Our prehistoric ancestors responded with a fight-or-flight mindset, when confronted by danger.   If they fought, it was to win and for the enemy to lose.  If they lost, they either took flight or suffered fatalities.   It was a case of survival of the fittest.

Second, no one likes to lose and certainly not in front of spectators.  In the animal kingdom, the loser slinks away.  In human exchanges, often, there is nowhere to go but “to slink away”.   The loser feels trapped; the blood drains from the face and the conflicting encounter is followed by sleepless nights.

Conflicts are part of the human condition.  So, expect clashes at meetings of the governing board on contentious issues.   But they can be used to good effect.   Just as a kite soars high when it is confronts a gutsy wind, so also can great decisions be made by the governing board when members disagree with one another.

Conflicts can have positive outcomes, provided that there are certain ground rules.   However, if not managed carefully, they can cause ruination and chaos.

The governors, especially the chair of the board, should promote a culture that promotes the well-being of the members and not undermine them. For this to work, s/he will engineer discussions so that the governors engage with the issues and divorce them from the personalities. This is difficult because some members are concerned more with point-scoring than promoting what is in the best interest of the children.  These governors view everything in stark terms.  Life is a zero-sum game.  “If I win, you lose and vice versa.”  They want to be viewed as champions not scum.  Meetings of the governing board become like the matches in the Premier Football League; the decisions they want the board to make are the goals they want to score.

Governors, who ensure conflicts work in the school’s/academy’s best interests, are assertive (as opposed to being aggressive).  They do not seek to undermine fellow governors.  They deflect personal criticism by forcing the governing board to focus on what is best for the school/academy rather than battles to be won.  They do not engage in one-upmanship by using every opportunity to show themselves superior to the other members.  They will celebrate others’ contributions. They, in fact, use antithetical contributions to hone their own thoughts.   They are ready to alter what they are thinking, if proved wrong.  Governors who are assertive disagree agreeably.

At times, there are governors who create conflict subtly, i.e. by suggesting alternative paths to difficult routes, paths that require a considerable amount of research and work.  At such times, astute fellow governors (often the chairs or headteachers) could suggest that the governors proposing these ideas do the legwork in taking the governing boards through the paths that they have identified.   That can have a salutary effect on governors who are determined to make work for their boards. If the proposals are made in the right spirit, they lead their boards as pioneers.  If they are fake and problematic, they learn to hold their peace in the future.

I am not suggesting that meetings of the governing board should be arenas of peace and tranquillity.   Far from it.   The governing board’s forum will then take on the form of Alfred Tennyson’s land of the lotos-eaters, where

“………..all around the coast the languid air did swoon,

Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.”

If the work of the governing board is to make a positive difference to the development of the school/academy, conflict is very part of the human condition.  Expect it.  So, here are five simple rules to bear in mind when conflicts arise.

(i)         Be open to criticism and negative information.  When problematic scenarios and conflicting data are presented, especially realities which you did not know about, reacting badly, only discourages contributions.

(ii)        The Chair could acknowledge the importance of the contribution being made by the person who is doing so.

(iii)       Governors should keep open minds and use the “unexpected” thoughts of the person who is against what could be “group think”.

(iv)       Resist the urge to offer an immediate solution before or immediately after hearing the person out.   On many an occasion, the person contradicted says: “I accept what you say, but……..”  After due thought is given to what has been presented it may be better to say: “I accept what you say and would wish to add……”  One then gets the person offering a different point of view on-side and the discussion that follows becomes positive.

(v)        Be willing to ask “Why” questions until you get to the root of the problem, hit upon the solution and work out the way forward.

An effective governing board is one that can turn the denominators of negative encounters into the numerators of proposals and ideas that benefit the school/academy.  Transform conflicts that the ugly beasts present into the charming, handsome princes of fairy tales.

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