It is absolutely normal to have difficult colleagues in staff room. In a perfect world, the school staff room would be a place of harmony and support. Ideally, in any school its staff will embrace a shared vision and will pull together in the same direction at all times.

But, that’s the ideal – and we all know that the world is far from perfect. Sadly, the school staff room is no exception.

Conflict is natural. It occurs in the school playground (as teachers well know!); it happens in families and friendship groups. So, it stands to reason that conflict will rear its ugly head in the workplace too. And, again, education is no exception.

Indeed, with school being such a high-pressure and high-stakes environment, it is actually a surprise that we don’t see more conflict and difficult colleagues at school.

Understand why conflict occurs

For anybody who leads and manages teams in a school, it is vital that they understand how to deal with difficult situations and colleagues. All managers and leaders need to be able to manage conflict and lead others successfully through it.

Schools operate in a culture of intense scrutiny. At worst, this can create a culture of fear – it’s no wonder that conflict can blow up quite quickly in school. It is natural when people feel threatened for them to become very defensive. Tempers get frayed easily. Schools are a pressure cooker of stress and emotions.

Appreciating that conflict will happen at some point and realising that it is inevitable in many ways is the first step in being able to deal with it effectively.

Prevention is better than cure

As with most things, prevention tends to better than cure. As a teacher, it is common practice – and natural instinct – to anticipate potential problems in the classroom. All teachers know that a hand signal, a look, or a position that you take up in the room can nip a problem in the bud. All classroom practitioners need to be proactive rather than reactive. Teachers, as leaders, need to take a leaf out of their own book to stop potential issues of conflict developing within department teams.

This could mean addressing certain issues with an individual rather than a whole team. It might mean communicating certain information face-to-face rather than by email. Remember, that all teams are essentially a group of individuals who could have very different views or opinions about things. This essentially means you can get many different reactions. Planning for every eventuality is the key to preventing conflict from occurring in the first place.

Confront difficult colleagues head-on

However, despite a teacher’s best efforts in the classroom and no matter how eagle-eyed and sharp they might be, behaviour issues will still happen. It’s the same with conflict and difficult colleagues in a department or team that you lead. No amount of pre-empting can totally prevent conflict from occurring.

It is also important not to avoid the issue. When you sense that any sort of problem is beginning to develop, deal with it straightaway. It is vital to remain objective and to remove ‘personalities’ from the equation. After all, you are confronting the issue and the problem, not the person.

Above all, dealing with conflict and difficult colleagues requires objectivity, assertiveness and tact.