Resolving Faculty Conflict

John H. Saxman, Ph.D.
Teachers College, Columbia University

The conference in San Diego provided me with the opportunity to present some observations about conflict and some approaches to conflict resolution.  At the conference, the observations and discussion of the rudimentary elements of conflict resolution were within an interactive context of two presentations, one of which was the Pre-Conference Workshop, "Resolving Faculty Conflict," and the other was a "How To's" session "Managing Faculty Conflict."  This paper will be in the form of an essay.

My introduction to conflict resolution was through participation in a series of workshops offered through the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University (ICCC).  The ICCC was founded by the imminent social psychologist Morton Deutsch who originated the theoretical foundation underlying the orientation to conflict resolution adopted for this presentation.  These theoretical principals, as well as a comprehensive exploration of the relevant theoretical and practical issues related to conflict resolution, are presented in the recently released Handbook of Conflict Resolution  (Deutsch & Coleman, 2000).  The specific strategies presented in this paper draw heavily from the strategies developed by Ellen Raider and Susan Coleman (1992) and most recently elaborated in Raider, Coleman, and Gerson (2000) as part of the Coleman Raider Workshop Design.

"Conflict is an inevitable feature of all social relations" (Deutsch, 1991).    Conflicts arise between people (interpersonal) and between peoples (groups, cultures, and societies).  Conflict results when needs or interests are perceived to be in opposition.  Kenneth Sole (1996) described conflict simply as "things in opposition."  He suggests that to understand the elements of a conflict, one needs to discover "what is in opposition to what."  Conflict is sometimes incredibly complex in its cause and manifestations.  The nature of conflict changes over time making conflict and its resolution, dynamic.  The causes of conflict are numerous.  Some general causes of conflict discussed by Sole (1996) are control of resources, preferences, beliefs about facts, values, and the nature of relationships.  These possibilities seem particularly relevant to conflict in academic settings; many of which we have all experienced as faculty.

The academic setting is not some idealized community of highly intelligent people where decisions are made through a collaborative process and conflict is resolved through reasoned solution.  It is a real world made up of individuals with different needs and interests who differ greatly in personal styles (and skills) of responding to conflict.  The academic community is replete with possibilities for conflict.  It is often said that one reason conflict within academe can become so contentious is because there is so little at stake, unlike the worlds of commerce and national interests.  This assertion is tongue-in-cheek, of course, though I suppose if one evaluated the importance of a conflict solely in terms of the number of people potentially affected by its outcome, there is some basis for it.  That would be a societal judgment of the conflict's importance, however.  Individuals engaged in conflict are more likely not to care as much about societal judgment as they care about how the conflict feels to them.

Is there anything unique about conflict in the academy as opposed to conflict within other organizations or groups?  Probably not unique, but there is one factor that is characteristic of the structure of colleges and universities that can contribute to conflict and complicate its resolution.  That factor is the inherent hierarchical nature of the academy and the resulting potential for power differentials, real or perceived, among the membership.  The case can be made with only a few examples of the many hierarchical structures of university life.  Students, for example, progress through a series of levels of ascendancy during their matriculation from being freshmen to seniors, first year graduate students to second years, doctoral students to candidates and finally for each level, degree recipients.  Faculty are recognized by different levels of achievement and permanence with titles such as adjunct, instructor, clinical faculty, assistant professor, associate professor, tenured professor, full professor, chaired distinguished professor, and so forth.  Each of these levels within the hierarchy is likely to have associated real and perceived power, status, security, and recognition (the last three are a paraphrase of Maslow's basic human needs).  Similarly, the sense of vulnerability or threat experienced at each level to one's power, status, security, and recognition is going to be very different.  The examples could go on to include administrative staff, clinical staff, support staff and other groups of people involved in the community.  This discussion will focus on the faculty member involved in conflict, though the principles are the same for those in other roles and positions.

Most conflicts are interpersonal, even those involving conflict between an individual and a group.  Faculty members have a variety of possibilities for conflict within the college or university setting.  Considering all the various people with whom a faculty member interacts during the workday leads to an appreciation of where potential for conflict resides.

What are areas around which conflicts for faculty can arise?  Some of the more common might include the following: When a dispute develops between a faculty member and another party, the Program Chair or Clinic Director often feels that they have some responsibility to assist in resolving the conflict.  Successful resolutions of some faculty disputes are clearly in the interests of the program and will likely involve the Chair or Director in some capacity, perhaps as a decision-maker, mediator, or advisor.  However, not all conflicts involving faculty are resolvable nor are they necessarily the responsibility of Chair to engage.  Obviously, the appropriate role of the Chair in finding a successful solution for a dispute between faculty members or with a faculty member will depend on the nature of the conflict.  The ability of the Chair to participate in a successful solution will be complicated by issues of perceived power differential and trust.  This is true whether the Chair is a party to the dispute or attempting to act as a neutral third party.  Coleman (2000) provides an excellent discussion of power and its implications for conflict resolution.  Lewicki and Wiethoff (2000) elaborate the relevant facets of trust and distrust.

A first step in adopting a strategy to resolve a conflict is to understand that different types of conflicts predispose different orientations to the conflict.  Deutsch (1991, 2000) discusses several types of conflict and their implications for conflict resolution strategies.  Most of us are familiar with the concepts derived from Game Theory regarding pure competitive conflicts and zero-sum games.  In the pure competitive situation the conflict is zero-sum (one party wins, the other loses).  Mixed motive conflicts recognize that goals and motives of the parties can be intertwined, thus outcomes can be those in which both parties win, or one party wins and the other loses, or both parties lose.  In the pure cooperative conflict, both can win or both can lose. Deutsch (2000) argues that conflicts approached as zero-sum or purely competitive often lead to negative processes, whereas more positive and productive solutions to conflict will result from a cooperative orientation.  This is an important principle to keep in mind when dealing with conflicts in which the parties are interdependent (most always the case) and when continuation of the relationship is a common interest of the parties (as in faculty disputes).

A critical element of managing faculty conflict is to promote and support an environment that promotes a cooperative orientation1.  Deutsch (2000) states,

 The most important implication of cooperative-competition theory is that a
 cooperative or win-win orientation to resolving a conflict enormously facilitates
 constructive resolution, while a competitive or win-lose orientation hinders it.
 It is easier to develop and maintain a win-win attitude if you have social support
 for it.  The social support can come from friends, coworkers, employers, the media,
 or your community. (Deutsch, 2000 p. 31).
Applicable to our discussion, Deutsch cautions that managers of a system (Program Chairs or Clinic Directors) must not only educate students, faculty, and other key people in the system to have a win-win orientation, but must educate themselves.  The actions of the Chair or Director must reflect and support a win-win orientation.  He further states that the system " Often requires fundamental change in the incentive structure so that the rewards, grades, perks, etc., in the system do not foster a win-lose relationship among the people in it" (Deutsch, 2000, p.31).  Changing the academic system is no doubt a daunting task, perhaps beyond reasonable expectations for a Program Chair.  However, one can have enormous influence within the local enclave of the program or clinic to foster change.  Remember the expression, "Think globally, act locally."
1.  For a thorough discussion of the concepts of cooperation and competition related to conflict management within the context of “The Theory of  Conflict  Resolution”  see Deutsch (2000).

Dispute Resolution Strategies

There are many strategies applied to conflict resolution.  Susan Coleman (1992) suggests the following heuristically helpful continuum of dispute resolution strategies: evasion, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, litigation, and fight/war.

Evasion is a strategy that rarely leaves the person who evades feeling empowered in the conflict.  The conflict is usually not resolved except in the temporary sense of escaping an immediate confrontation.  There are times, of course, when evasion is a useful strategy such as when the conflict is inherently short-lived or is a win-lose conflict and you cannot win.

Negotiation is a strategy that involves the disputants directly in an attempt to find a solution. The parties agree to work together toward a solution.  The individual orientations to the dispute can be quite different.  For example, one party may be using a strategy for a win-lose conflict and the other approaching the conflict from win-win perspective. In negotiation, both parties retain their prerogative to accept or reject proposed solutions.

Mediation is a process in which the parties in dispute agree to allow a neutral third party to facilitate the negotiation. Both parties retain their right to accept or reject the proposed solutions that result from the mediated negotiations.  As with negotiations, the orientations to the conflict can be very different.  A mediator can often help the disputants reframe the conflict as a mutual problem in which a joint-cooperative strategy might lead to a constructive solution.

Arbitration also involves a neutral third party.  The arbitrator hears the best arguments from the two sides in the dispute and makes a decision based on the most persuasive argument.  The individual parties cede decision-making power to the arbitrator and, in binding arbitration, agree to abide by the decision.  Often this process leads to a "winner" and a "loser," though a compromise solution could be proposed.

Litigation places the power and authority for the dispute resolution with the third party, a judge.  Litigation involves representatives of the disputants, lawyers, who present the arguments for their clients.  The disputants must abide by the decision of the court regardless of their individual feelings about the fairness of the outcome.  The court has no obligation to reach a decision within the best interests of both parties or to reframe the conflict as a mutual problem to be solved cooperatively.

Fighting/War is an aggressive method of resolving conflict that is used when other methods are not viewed as productive or viable.  Obviously it is the most potentially destructive form of competition.  A Lose-lose outcome is not untypical.

All the methods of conflict resolution mentioned above are used in conflicts within the academic community (at least metaphorically).  Some methods are more desirable than others are and, accordingly, the remainder of this essay will focus on negotiation.  Negotiation, specifically collaborative negotiation, is the method that has the greatest potential for constructive lasting resolution of conflict. In addition, negotiation also underlies the process of mediation. They each have the advantage of allowing for ownership of the solution when it is arrived at through collaborative means.  The approach to negotiation presented in the following sections is one developed by Ellen Raider and Susan Coleman, described in detail in Raider, Coleman and Gerson (2000).

Structural Elements of Negotiation

Negotiation has six structural elements according to the Coleman Raider negotiation framework (Raider et al., 2000).  The elements are worldview, climate, positions, interests and needs, reframing, and bargaining "Chips" and "Chops."  Understanding these elements within the negotiation framework is important for an adequate analysis of the negotiation.  The first two are easily understood.  Worldview is a construct that encompasses what one believes to be true about the world.  It also involves one's values. Conflicts of worldview and values are often intractable2.  Climate includes the affective context of the negotiation as well as the competitive or cooperative orientation to the conflict of the parties involved.  The remaining four are interrelated with regard to the process of negotiation and require a little more discussion.

Early in this paper, conflict was said to result when people's interests or needs were perceived to be in opposition.  When parties agree to negotiate a conflict, the conflict is usually stated in terms of positions or demands that reflect what each party wants.  The position is the
2. An interesting and highly accessible discussion of values is found in Lewis, H. (1990). A Question of Values: Six Ways We Make the Personal Choices That Shape Our Lives. Harper & Row, Publishers, San Francisco

statement of the preferred outcome that satisfies the individuals interests or needs.  Positions are clearly  in opposition.  If they were not, there would be no dispute. The position is the preferred solution to meeting needs, not necessarily the only way to meet underlying needs.  The climate of the negotiation can influence how a position is stated and its degree of negotiability.

Needs and interests are what the parties seek to satisfy.  Needs range from very basic and physical needs such as survival and security to more abstract needs such as status and feelings of belonging.  Often needs are realized on a more affective than cognitive level.  An individual may in fact have a secure position but needs to feel secure.  One may in fact be valued within an organization but not feel valued.  Merit pay comes to mind.  A professor, Michael, approaches his Chair and demands that he is given a raise of ten percent (a much higher percentage of his salary than the percentage raise money allotted) or he reluctantly will be forced to start looking for another job.  Michael's,  position represents for him the solution to an unmet need.  What is the underlying need? From the statement of his position, one can only speculate.  The Department Chair, Lois, states simply that she can not give him a raise of that magnitude and, though she certainly does not want to lose him, it is not negotiable.  The underlying interests of the Chair are not clear from her position.  Understanding needs and interests requires analysis at a deeper level than that of clarifying the position, though without a clear statement of the position, it is often difficult to move beyond the positional conflict.  A closer look at the dispute between Michael and Lois will help to illustrate the importance of getting to underlying needs.

Michael, an assistant professor, has been in the department since finishing his Ph.D. degree four years ago.  He has had three very successful years, having published a number of articles, received consistently high teaching evaluations, and recently received word that his application for a university sponsored special research grant was approved for next year. He has received salary increases of three percent for each of the last three years, the percent increase allotted to the department by the Dean (in other words, the average raise).  His friend and colleague in another department received an eight-percent raise last year and Michael actually had one more paper published than his friend.  Michael really likes the university and the community. He and his wife are waiting until he receives tenure so they can securely begin a family.  However, he is concerned that he is viewed as only an average performer because of his raise history.  He has heard that average is not good enough for tenure at his university.  To make matters worse, he heard that Jeanette received a ten-percent raise last year.  Jeanette is an associate professor with tenure in his department and has been at the university for 15 years.  He feels that Lois does not recognize the value of his work because Jeanette, though carrying an overload of advisees, was not as productive as he was last year.  Maybe, he thought it was just cronyism.  He decided that if he could get a ten-percent raise, it would mean that the department (Lois) really did value him and his chances for promotion would be very good.  He felt also that he did not want to stay where he was not appreciated.

Lois has been Chair for five years, two years into her second three-year term.  In her first year, she was able to hire Michael whom she viewed as a promising young teacher-scholar who would soon contribute to the national visibility of the program.  She was proud that she was able to negotiate a very high starting salary for Michael, one that placed his first year salary only a few hundred dollars lower than the associate level.  Lois is strongly committed to equity and to increasing the cohesiveness of the faculty as the signature of her legacy as Chair.  When she replaced the retiring Chair of 18 years, she became aware of significant salary discrepancies among the ten faculty members, the most egregious example being Jeanette, the first woman hired in the department.  Lois was gradually able to narrow the disparities by giving most faculty a point under the percent allotted so that she could give more to those who were well below their contemporaries in the department.  Even so, she was able to give Michael an above average raise each year in recognition of his productivity.  This year, the Dean has instructed the Chairs that they must give across the board raises that left only two percent for "merit" increases.  She had planned to use most of the merit money to finish the equity adjustments she promised to the two faculty members with remaining inequities. Two senior faculty members were not happy about the changes in raise distribution initiated by Lois.  Lois has always counted on Michael's support for her leadership initiatives within the department.

The scenario of Michael and Lois illustrates the complexity of a problem that is often masked by the statement of opposing positions.  The positions expressed by Michael (ten percent or else) and Lois (no ten percent) are seen to be motivated by factors not directly deducible from the positions, alone.  One might initially guess that Michael needed additional money to meet pressing financial commitments and that Lois did not think he was worth a much larger than average raise.   In reality, Michael was seeking reassurance of his value to the department (recognition) and needed to feel secure that Lois would see him as a worthy tenure candidate.  He does not really want to leave. Lois wants to move ahead on her agenda of salary equity.  It is important to her that she is seen as a person who keeps her promise.  She is also constrained financially by the Dean's raise policy.  Lois also recognizes her interests in having Michael's support within the faculty.

Reframing is the process of refocusing the conflict on the needs or interests of the parties, moving beyond the position level.  According to Deutsch (2000), reframing is an important contributor to the process of constructive conflict resolution, second only to a cooperative or win-win orientation.  The conflict is restated as "a mutual problem to be resolved (or solved) through joint cooperative efforts."  Obviously, until the underlying needs or interests are revealed, it is difficult to meaningfully reframe the conflict as one resolvable through mutual problem solving.  The general reframed problem might be something like, "How can we work together to meet both of our priority needs?" Lois might reframe the problem presented in their scenario as, "How can we work together to satisfy your need for recognition and reassurance regarding the value of your work and my need to keep my promise of providing equity in base salaries among faculty?"

Negotiating "Chips" and "Chops" are those things (tangible or intangible) that each party has to offer the other side to either meet the needs of the other party or to thwart their needs.  A caveat here is that the positive or negative valence of the "Chips" and "Chops" is not always apparent from their surface form.  The positive of negative value of the offering is ultimately defined by whether the receiving party recognizes it as meeting or impeding their needs.  In that sense, they are somewhat analogous to "reward" or "punishment" in a behavioral learning context, definable by the effect.  Lois, assuming she honestly felt that way, could offer to nominate Michael for one of the professor of the year awards made by the college.  Michael might experience that as a "Chip."  Lois, assuming that money was the issue, could offer Michael the opportunity to teach an extra course in the summer session for additional summer salary.  Michael might experience that as taking away from his summer writing time and thus, a "Chop."

Communication Behaviors in Negotiation

Now that the structural elements of the negotiation are recognized, the next step in the Coleman Raider training sequence (Raider et al., 2000) is to understand the types of communication behaviors that are part of negotiations.  They identify the five behaviors of attacking, evading, informing, opening, and uniting.  Conveniently, these behaviors are sequenced to use the mnemonic device of A, E, I, O, U.  In the Coleman Raider workshop format, participants would be trained to identify and code these verbal or non-verbal communication behaviors in simulated negotiations.  Our discussion will be limited to a general description of the behaviors with a few specific examples illustrated through use of our scenario of Lois and Michael.

Attack behaviors are those verbal or non-verbal behaviors that are perceived by the other party as being hostile, humiliating, disrespectful, insulting, devaluing, threatening, judgmental, or a variety of other negative adjectives.  Michael might say to Lois, "I really deserve that raise, certainly more so than your buddy, Jeannette, got last year.  And, I know some other faculty who would agree with me."  While less direct than saying, "Lois, you make unfair decisions and unless I get the raise I deserve, I am going to make it an issue with the faculty," the effect on Lois was the same.

Evading behaviors are those that avoid dealing with the conflict or some portion of the conflict by one or both parties.  Evading can have positive or negative implications. Avoiding by being unresponsive, being physically unavailable through leaving the scene or not showing up, or not engaging the issue by changing the topic, etc. are examples of evasion.  Sometimes it is advantageous to evade by postponing further discussion until there is opportunity to seek necessary information, to wait for a better climate, or perhaps to ensure that there is sufficient time to work through a constructive solution.  Picture our colleague Michael stepping into Lois' office five minutes before she is to meet with a group of prospective students.  "Lois, you got a minute?  I just found out what kind of raise you gave Jeannette last year and I'm kind of upset about it.  I don't understand what is going on.  I want to talk about my raise for next year."  Lois could say something like "Hi, Michael, I hear that you are upset.  I would like to talk about your raise, also, but I'm seeing a group of students in five minutes.  This is important, Michael and I'd like to have more time to discuss it.  I'm free for an hour this afternoon after 3:00.  If that's not good for you, let's compare calendars and find a time that's good for both of us."

Informing is behavior intended to communicate one party's perspective regarding the conflict to the other party.  Effective perspective sharing is done in a nonattacking manner.  Information can be communicated about any of the levels relevant to the person's perspective such as the position, justification, interests and needs, or feelings. This is an appropriate place to note that feelings have an appropriate place in discussions about conflict.  Often to really understand one's own perspective in a conflict, one needs to understand one's feelings.  Most of us are highly skilled and comfortable dealing at an intellectual level.  Some of us are less skilled at recognizing our feelings and certainly less comfortable sharing them, even when acknowledging our feelings may be an important step toward the productive resolution of a conflict.   Michael and Lois have a lot of informing to do.  Ultimately, it would be important for Michael to share his insecurity about tenure and that he equates the amount of his raise to Lois' perception of his worth to the department.  Lois, in turn might say to Michael, "You know, Michael, I can't discuss someone else's raise with you.  I can tell you however that when I became Chair, I discovered large disparities in salary between some faculty that did not seem based on rank, longevity, or merit.  You know, also, how I value equity and fairness.  I have almost made up those differences in the last four years and sometimes that meant giving a very high raise to one person in a given year.   Even so, your raises have been above the average for the department in each year because I do recognize your excellent work."

Opening behaviors are those that invite the other party to share information.  Asking questions about the other's position, feelings, values, needs in a manner that conveys genuine interest is opening behavior.  Listening in a nonjudgmental manner and probing for clarification in a nonchallenging manner are opening behaviors. An important aspect of this process is to confirm one's understanding of the other party's message by providing neutral summaries of what one is hearing (feedback in an information-processing communication model).  Informing and opening behaviors are part of an active interdependent communication process.  Lois might say, "Let me see if I understand what you are telling me, Michael. You feel that the size of your raise is determined by my assessment of your performance in relation to the other members of the faculty."  Michael answers, "Yea, that's the way I see it."  Lois could then follow with a request for more information such as, "Michael, can you tell me more about why you feel that your raises have been judgments about your value to the department?"

Uniting  behaviors enable the cooperative negotiation process by emphasizing the relationship between parties and engender the appropriate tone for cooperation.  Raider, Coleman, and Gerson (2000) identify four types of uniting behavior: building rapport, high-lighting common ground, reframing the conflict issues, and linking bargaining chips to expressed needs.  Keeping with our discussions between Lois and Michael, Lois could say, "I know you really care about the program.  You and I have worked hard together for four years to improve the curriculum and the over-all quality of our program.  Your publications about clinical efficacy have been instrumental in recruiting several new students to the masters program. We should be able to work together to find a way to insure that you feel appropriately recognized and rewarded for your contributions to the program and I can feel supported in my efforts to ensure that everyone in the department is treated fairly."

Essential Stages of Collaborative Negotiation

Negotiation takes place in many forms. "What do you wanna do?"  "I don't know Marty, What do you wanna do?" can be the start of negotiations about an evenings activities.  These kinds of casual negotiations are familiar events in our social experience.  So familiar that we might not even consider that we are negotiating, only that we are making a mutual decision about how or where to spend time.  Only when the parties needs or interests are conflicting, does the discussion begin to feel like a negotiation.  Other negotiations can be very formal with precisely developed agenda and rules or protocols.  Working toward a cooperative solution through negotiation is a process that unfolds from the initial agreement to solve the conflict together to the end-point of reaching agreement.  Raider et al. (2000) identify four stages of negotiation that they have found to be heuristically useful in their training paradigm.  The stages are the following: ritual sharing; identifying the issues; prioritizing issues and reframing; and problem solving and reaching agreement.  Though the negotiation process can be described in terms of progressive stages, the actual dynamics of negotiation are typically not so linear.

Rather than go through the stages of negotiation in a simulation of a conflict as one would in a training session, I want simply to relate them to the structural elements communication behaviors discussed earlier.  Ritual sharing, for example, is when the parties engage climate setting and uniting behaviors such as rapport building and finding common ground.  Identifying the issues is the process clarifying positions and discovering the related underlying needs and interests.  During this stage, informing and opening behaviors predominate.  The next stage, prioritizing needs and reframing, involves ordering the needs of each party according to importance, immediacy, solvability or some other relevant criteria that make the solution manageable.  Once priority needs are identified, the conflict can be reframed as a problem of satisfying the needs of both parties through a mutually derived solution.  Problem solving and reaching agreement is a complex interactive process that involves brainstorming solutions, evaluating proposed solutions, uniting and opening behaviors to continue the collaborative process, and keeping in mind the goal of a mutually agreed to solution.


Conflict is inevitable. A competitive conflict orientation can promote destructive processes that spill beyond its original boundaries.  Conflict is not inevitably bad, however.  A cooperative conflict orientation can promote constructive processes.  Collaborative negotiation is one way to approach faculty conflict.  Resolution of faculty conflict through collaborative negotiation or mediation (basically, facilitated negotiation) is more likely to succeed when the department culture supports a cooperative, as opposed to competitive, climate.  Successful collaborative negotiation assumes that the two parties are willing to work together and that they are competent to use the skills necessary to move the negotiation forward to a mutually agreed to solution.  Constructive conflict resolution does not happen by accident.  Chairs can influence the odds of successful management of conflict by learning the skills required for collaborative negotiation, support programs of training in conflict resolution for their faculty and staff, and by promoting and supporting a cooperative orientation to conflict within their programs.


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Deutsch,  M.  (1991). Educating for a peaceful world. Presidential address to the Division of  Peace Psychology,  Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco, CA on August 18, 1991.

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