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Managing conflict: supervisory skills and strategies (1)

Peter Gabor and Carol Ing

Conflicts are ever present in group care settings and occur at all levels: among children, between children and staff, among workers and between workers and supervisors. In this paper, we will focus oil conflicts occurring between supervisors and workers, exploring the dynamics of’ such conflict and describing skills and approaches which can be used by supervisors to constructively and effectively manage such conflict.

Group care settings are highly complex social systems. Because interactions are intensive and because there is a high interdependence of tasks at the staff level, conflicts are inevitable. Conflicts reflect differences in people’s attitudes, views, opinions, goals, and expectations. In themselves, conflicts are not necessarily negative; indeed, creative resolution of conflicts can build interpersonal and team relationships, as well as provide the impetus for program development. However, if conflicts are inadequately resolved, working relationships may deteriorate, leaving feelings of resentment, frustration and anger. Workers with such feelings may lose motivation and exhibit behaviors of withdrawal, minimum compliance or even overt defiance. Group care programs are subjected to many pressures, some of which increase the chances of supervisor-worker conflict. Programs are under pressure from consumers to demonstrate accountability, funders are demanding more efficient and cost-effective services, and professional trends are increasingly emphasizing community-based approaches. These, and other pressures, are continually challenging programs to adapt and change. By nature of their position, supervisors are often responsible for leading and implementing the change process. However, many workers will resist change (Long, 1988) if only because their lives and routines are often disrupted by changes. Conflicts inevitably result from such dynamics.

Conflicts between supervisors and workers may also focus on the worker’s performance. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that performance standards in general are maintained and that each worker meets those standards. However, because child care work involves a complex of role expectations, some of which may be contradictory (Gabor, 1975), some workers will selectively fulfill only some of those expectations and ignore others. For example, a worker may concentrate on meeting the needs of individual children and fail to support team efforts to maintain consistency and organization in the living unit. In such a situation, conflict may arise when the supervisor raises concerns about deficiencies in the worker’s performance.

Conflict management is an interactive process; workers and supervisors alike have a role in ensuring that conflicts are constructively resolved. However, because of their formal authority and leadership role, supervisors have a special responsibility for ensuring that conflicts are managed effectively. To do this, supervisors need a sound understanding of the dynamics of conflict resolution as well as an ability to make use of this knowledge in their relationship with their subordinates. By understanding the underlying dynamics of conflict and using effective conflict management skills, supervisors can ensure that relationships remain constructive and that the negative consequences of’ inadequate conflict resolution are avoided. Moreover, by their use of effective conflict management skills, supervisors model these techniques for staff members, thereby enhancing conflict resolution skills within the organization generally.

Gabor, P.A. (1975). A theoretical exploration of problems relating to the child care worker role in the treatment institution. Unpublished Master’s thesis, McGill University, Montreal.

Long, N. (1988). Conflict in human interaction: danger or opportunity. The Child and Youth Care Administrator 1, 8-13.

Gabor, P., & Ing, C. (1989) Managing conflict: supervisory skills and strategies. The Child and Youth Care Administrator, Vol. 2(2), pp. 50-51

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