Trust and conflict are opposite sides of the same coin. That means managing conflict productively is much easier when boards first take steps to build trust, two experts from the New York State School Boards Association said at a Sunday session.
In a presentation called “Building Trust and Overcoming Conflict on Your Board,” NYSSBA Leadership Development Manager Darci D’Ercole-McGinn and Editor-in-Chief Eric Randall led board members through exercises to help them recognize types of conflict and practice tactics for dealing with it.
The stakes extend beyond the obvious goals of leading smooth, productive meetings, Randall said. He summarized research that found a correlation between high levels of trust among school leaders — including teachers, administrators, and board members — and improved achievement among students.
Trust also was one of five key emotions necessary among members of a superior work team, according to a NASA consultant who was hired following the Challenger shuttle disaster.
Randall likened trust for a school board to lubricant for a machine: It helps a group function efficiently and effectively because members feel comfortable that they can rely on each other to act and communicate honestly.
D’Ercole-McGinn said even simple, informal steps, such as social conversations and board seating arrangements that allow members to see each other when they speak, can help lay a foundation for trust.
The two presenters also pointed to more formal habits that invariably contribute to healthy decision-making and help boards avoid getting bogged down or side-tracked by conflicts, petty or otherwise:
# Use respectful and courteous body language. That means refraining from eye-rolling, heavy sighs, or constantly checking text messages.
# Use data, which can include statistics, research, or simple anecdotal examples, to make points. That should encourage other participants in the discussion to do the same.
# Don’t interrupt others when they are speaking. Acknowledge their points and don’t dismiss them. Disagree without being disagreeable.
# Follow parliamentary procedure, a tool for keeping meetings moving in a productive, respectful, and efficient manner, said Randall.
D’Ercole-McGinn urged boards to consider annual retreats, facilitated discussions, and new member orientation programs to help members build trusting relationships and establish good habits for working together. Almost any time a new member joins, she said, there’s a perfect opportunity to do that.
It’s wise to set trust-building as a high and early priority, she said, because “conflict is not an ‘if’ question, it’s a ‘when’ question.”