Top Tips for Dealing with Difficult Colleagues

In an ideal world all the staff in a team, department or whole-school will embrace a shared vision, work harmoniously together and support each other to create a fantastic, wonderful and incredibly productive working environment. However, in the real world things are often far from ideal!

A school is no different from any other workplace in so much that it is always going to be difficult to create and maintain the work utopia described above. People have their own agendas, beliefs and opinions. It can be extremely challenging to get all colleagues to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’.

Conflict is inevitable

Unfortunately, examples of conflict, difficult situations and difficult colleagues all have an air of inevitability about them in education. The pressure of the job, the incessant scrutiny on the profession and the culture of fear that, sadly, exists in many schools means that they can be a breeding ground for conflict.

Therefore – especially if you responsible for leading or managing others – it is really important that professionals know how to manage conflict and how to deal with difficult situations and colleagues. Here are some tips for doing just that…

Understand the reasons why conflict occurs

Some people can be naturally slightly cantankerous, negative and difficult. To a leader or manager who is naturally positive as a person, this can be extremely difficult to understand and to deal with!

The reasons why somebody appears to be continually negative are varied and there are far too many to mention them all here. They might just be a ‘glass is half empty’ kind of person. It might stem from childhood, personal circumstances or previous experience at the school (or a previous school).

As a leader, you can’t legislate for all these factors. But you can do all you can to try to understand what makes your colleagues tick. By all means listen to what others might say about a person – but never let anything cloud your own judgement. You need to remain completely impartial and objective.

Always take the time to listen to what the ‘difficult colleague’ has to say, but be aware that their openness and honesty are never guaranteed. People are often wary of leaders and managers! Trust is something that is earned over time.

Conflict: Prevention not cure

With conflict, prevention is definitely better than cure. Leading and managing a team is much the same as teaching a class. In the classroom, teachers are continually scanning the room, anticipating any problems that might occur – before they escalate or before they even happen. Beforehand, the planning of a lesson is similar. The teacher thinks about how the class might respond to an activity. You plan the lesson to meet the needs of the pupils.

It is no different when you are leading a team. Anticipate their responses, identify potential issues and try to spot where conflict might occur. It might be that you choose to discuss a meeting agenda item with a ‘difficult colleague’ in advance.

With a class, you need to be seen to be treating everybody the same but you will adopt bespoke approaches with individual students. You should do the same with the team you manage. This is a great way of preventing issues from moving to conflict situations.

Confronting difficult colleagues

Although it’s natural to want to avoid confrontation, there will be times when leaders need to confront colleagues about particular issues. Avoiding the issue will only allow it to escalate.

When a ‘conflict meeting’ is necessary, it’s important to retain your objectivity and do your preparation. You are confronting the issue, not the person. Start the meeting by making your initial statement about whatever the issue is. This should be clear and objective.

And once you have made this statement, stop talking. Listen.

Confrontation doesn’t mean a fight. It simply means stating what you need to say. Listening to what the person has to say in response is the most important thing. Do not interrupt. Stick to the facts. Be assertive but not emotional. This is the best way to resolve conflict situations.

Course recommendations

Our course Managing Conflict and Dealing with Difficult People is aimed at professionals across all sectors that lead and manage colleagues. The course gives useful insights about how to recognise the warning signs of conflict and offers practical tips and strategies for dealing with difficult people and situations.

Other courses you may be interested in: