Heads Up

Why leaders must go looking for conflict

Conflict is a daily part of life as a leader; sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s small, usually it lands on us, but if you want be the best leader you can be, and create the best school culture you can, then you need to look for conflict.

I don’t mean you go ‘spoiling for a fight’ as that’s not going to give you an outstanding culture and, whilst leadership is not about popularity, it doesn’t have to create enemies!

Culture is formed by behaviour over time; bad behaviour = bad culture, good behaviour = good culture. However, no-one intentionally grows a bad culture, or at least I don’t think they do – in fact, I think most people are trying, consciously or otherwise, to build a good culture. But many don’t. And the reason they don’t is because they are not looking for conflict; they are not looking for the things in their culture that are damaging it, small things like negative behaviour or unhelpfulness. Big things often get tackled because they are so big they can’t be missed; things like poor teacher performance or gross misconduct. But it’s the small things, the day to day behaviours, that really make culture what it is.

I think of culture being like cleanliness; imagine you’re constantly looking for how you can make your environment cleaner, not in an audit-like process, but just as you go about your day-to-day business. It doesn’t mean you clean every day, but one day you might notice that limescale has built up around the tap faucet, so you clean it, and another day you’ll notice something else. Culture is the same; you’re looking for behaviours that don’t create the culture you want, and when you see them (usually from the same person a few times), you have a successful difficult conversation with them.

Problem is, few of us have been shown how to have healthy conflict, which is conflict which is helpful and moves things forward as opposed to conflict which can just be a bit of barny! Healthy conflict is conflict’s nemesis; it aims to deal with issues constructively, kindly, and lead to positive change.

A head came to a conference we run on ‘how to tackle under-performance and capability effectively’. On the day, he understood that he could talk to members of his team about their behaviour and be within the law, so when back at school he spoke to a member of his team whose behaviour was not good, she created a negative atmosphere and no-one liked to work with her. He had a successful difficult conversation with her, truly in the realm of healthy conflict, and totally turned the situation around. In fact, it was so effective that she was happier at the end of it and their relationship became one of respect. The head confessed to me that the training was ‘life-changing’. Once he knew how to do this, how to create healthy conflict, he was able to do it really effectively and support creating the right culture in his school.

Top tip: If you want to get better at having successful difficult conversations, which will create a culture of healthy conflict, I have two tips for you:

  1. Develop your skills by being reflective after a difficult conversation – what went well, what didn’t, what could you have done differently?
  2. Download our special report on The 10 mistakes school leaders make when having a difficult conversation
  3. Get some training – you can find out about ours which has been recommended by everyone we have trained