Part One: An Introduction to Conflict Management in Academia
In the course of your academic training and career, you are likely to experience conflict. However, you may find that it is sometimes difficult or confusing to pinpoint why issues are arising and decide if an intervention is necessary or beneficial.
David Rasch, the Ombuds at Stanford University, sees and helps mitigate conflict every day. In his role, he serves as a confidential and neutral resource to help resolve disputes, conflicts, questions, and problems that arise within his institution.
In part one of this interview series with Rasch, he outlines different types of conflict you may encounter at academic institutions and considerations that can help you process how you choose to approach your individual situation.
How do you define conflict?
There are many different ways in which people experience conflict. The basic element is that there's an issue or experience that somebody or a group is having with a different person, group, or institution. There's some difference that's creating stress in the form of frustration or anger, fear or anxiety, or confusion. The issue leads to people feeling that something isn't right, or it's not under their control, or that something is happening that shouldn't be happening and that there's a need to address that issue or at least think through the options.
Are there any types of conflict that are specific to academic environments? If so, why?
Academia is prone to unique difficulties because there are different stratums. Tenured faculty have certain roles, rights, privileges, and influence. Tenure track faculty are trying to read the political environment because they're looking at their career futures. They are often careful about what they say and tend to avoid raising issues involving conflict that may interfere with their professional progress.
Staff can feel like they are not accorded the same rights and privileges as faculty, and that sometimes their treatment reflects a lack of equality or fairness.
The future careers of graduate students and postdocs are often very dependent on a single relationship — with their PI. That relationship is critical, especially if they're interested in progressing in academia. If something starts to break down in that relationship, no matter how talented or productive the students are, their professional future is at risk. Graduate students and postdocs are often reticent to talk about problems that they think might interfere with completion of their degree or obtaining a good recommendation.
How have you seen conflict manifest in the individuals involved?
They experience some stress, which is normal and unavoidable. When that stress is sustained over an extended period of time is typically when more negative aspects of conflict arise.
An unresolved difficulty can take a few forms. The individual will start to see symptoms like anxiety or depression, or irritation or anger. They lose the ability to be as effective in communicating with people. If there's a conflict between parties — especially one that's going on for an extended period of time — there’s a breakdown in the relationship. People either overreact or react emotionally, or avoid and don’t interact at all.
Other people in the workplace notice and are often involved or feel it in some way. Unresolved conflicts can affect the climate, morale, productivity, and attendance.
In your experience, have both ramifications and positive outcomes occurred after individuals consulted with you and/or other conflict management resources?
Yes, I've seen everything. I've seen when people in good faith tried to resolve conflicts — particularly graduate students, postdocs, and sometimes non-tenured faculty — and the outcome was a retribution or negative consequence on their career progression. I've also seen conflicts addressed directly where a positive outcome happened, such as a better understanding between parties on how to move forward.
Much of the result depends on the history of the relationship and the personalities and motivations of the parties, as well as other issues going on in the environment, such as politics within the department, or issues related to money. There could be other more personal elements that lead to a breakdown in a good relationship.
People who are in the one-down position in the hierarchy needs to think about what issues they want to let roll off their back for the greater good of not aggravating a situation and getting through their education in the best possible way.
Sometimes situations are related to institutional policies or law. In these instances, people need to become informed and also look at the impact of possible decisions. What will the consequences be if they take this step or that step? What support or protection do they have?
I encourage people to be very thoughtful and thorough in looking at their options because these are complex situations, both in the present and in the future. People need to think carefully about the steps they take when situations become troubling and follow the path that works best for them as an individual.