Conflict – whether overt or covert – is something no one enjoys dealing with in the classroom. In a face-to-face class you may be able to quell inappropriate behaviour with a sharp look or a quick word of warning after class. In an online class inappropriate behaviour may be harder to spot and harder to combat due to the text-based nature of most communication. Controversy can erupt in any learning situation, and knowing how to manage it is an important skill for any instructor.

Conflict Management for Instructors

Have you ever had to deal with a disruptive or highly emotional student? Have you had a student question your marking or challenge your authority in the classroom? These situations are examples of conflicts, or situations in which at least one person perceives that their interests are in opposition to others’ interests. By adopting an open and proactive approach to conflicts, you can reduce the frequency with which conflicts arise and their impact. Here are some strategies to help you both prevent and manage conflicts in your teaching.

When discussion goes bad: Conflict in an online course

To avoid conflict that stems from incivility, beginning with Course netiquette is a good place to start. Reminding everyone that there is another human being on the receiving end of each message can help students calibrate their reactions to the context. Asking students to participate in discussions by posting video comments also reinforces the reality that they are talking to other real people. Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek, and Lozada (2010) suggested a list of netiquette items for a graduate online class which includes:

  • Do not dominate any discussion.
  • Never make fun of someone’s ability to read or write.
  • Use correct spelling, grammar, and plain English
  • Keep an “open-mind” and be willing to express even your minority opinion.
  • Think before you push the “Send” button.
  • Do not hesitate to ask for feedback.

When conflict occurs, Horton (2006) recommends some options for instructors:

  1. If you have taught the course before, you may be able to anticipate problems and have a consistent, thought-out response ready.
  2. Include netiquette requirements in the syllabus and course introduction. Many learners may not know the conventions and expectations for online learning. Enforce policies consistently.
  3. When you come across unacceptable behavior, do not respond without taking a moment to think about the behavior in context .  For example, if students are experiencing frustration with the course or the tools respond to both the usability issue and the way they expressed it.
  4. Differentiate between first-time violators and serious or repeat offenders. What can be used as a learning experience versus what requires disciplinary action?
  5. Help students learn to disagree professionally and politely. If they are used to the sort of disagreement and “debate” that occurs on Facebook, instructions and modeling appropriate ways to give and respond to legitimate criticism may be helpful.

Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann based their conflict style inventory on the managerial grid developed by Blake and Mouton. They arranged five conflict resolution approaches on scales of two individual characteristics: assertiveness and cooperativeness, as illustrated below.

Thomas Kilmann diagram.png

They also developed the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument that is used to identify an individual’s natural tendencies when dealing with conflict.

Five modes for conflict-management

1. Competing

People who favour this style tend to take a firm stand because they are confident in their position. They often operate from a position of power. The style is useful when the conflict needs to be resolved urgently; when the solution is unpopular or when the other party is trying to exploit a situation to their own advantage. Care must be taken not to use this style inappropriately as some people will feel they have lost an argument and will be resentful.

Situations when this mode is useful include when an immediate decision is needed, an outcome is critical and cannot be compromised, strong leadership needs to be demonstrated, unpopular actions are needed, when company or organisational welfare is at stake, and when self-interests need to be protected. This mode should be avoided when: relationships are strained and may lead to retaliation, the outcome is not very important to the leader, it may result in weakened support and commitment from followers, and when the leader is not very knowledgeable of the situation.

Types of Competing


Appropriate When

  • Power of authority, position, or majority
  • Power of persuasion
  • Pressure techniques (e.g., threats, force, intimidation)
  • Disguising the issue
  • Tying relationship issues to substantive issues
  • The conflict may escalate or the other party may withdraw.
  • Reduces the quality and durability of agreement.
  • Assumes no reciprocating power will come from the other side; people tend to reach for whatever power they have when threatened.
  • Increases the likelihood of future problems between parties.
  • Restricts communication and decreases trust.
  • There are short time frames and quick action is vital.
  • Dealing with trivial issues.
  • Tough decisions require leadership (e.g., enforcing unpopular rules, cost cutting, discipline)

2. Collaborating

The collaborative style tries to meet the needs of everyone involved. Someone who adopts this style can still be assertive but, unlike the ‘competitor’ they acknowledge everyone’s views have equal importance.  This style tries to bring together many viewpoints to arrive at the best solution and should be the first style employed, for example, when resolving conflicts during requirements management.

Situations when this mode is useful include when the concerns of parties involved are too important to be compromised, to identify and resolve feelings that have been interfering with team dynamics, improve team structure and commitment, to merge ideas from individuals with different viewpoints on a situation, and when the objective is to learn. This mode should be avoided in situations where time, energy and resources are limited, a quick and vital decision needs to be made, and the conflict itself is not worth the time and effort.

Type of Collaborating


Appropriate When

  • Maximising use of fixed resources
  • Working to increase resources
  • Listening and communicating to promote understanding of interests and values
  • Learning from each other’s insight
  • Builds relationships and improves potential for future problem solving
  • Promotes creative solutions
  • Parties are committed to the process and adequate time is available.
  • The issue is too important to compromise.
  • New insights can be beneficial in achieving creative solutions.
  • There is a desire to work through hard feelings that have been a deterrent to problem solving.
  • There are diverse interests and issues at play.
  • Participants can be future focused.

3. Compromising

Compromise often means that all parties feel only partially satisfied. Compromise means everyone has to give up something but is useful when the impact of the conflict on project, programme or portfolio objectives outweighs the effects of breaking the impasse between equal parties. This approach is most likely to be used during the delivery phase of the life cycle.

Situations when this mode is effective include: a temporary and/or quick decision to a complex issue is needed, the welfare of the organisation will benefit from the compromise of both parties, both parties are of equal power and rank, when other modes of conflict-handling are not working, and when the goals are moderately important and not worth the time and effort. This mode should be avoided when partial satisfaction of each party’s concerns may lead to propagation of the issue or when a leader recognises that their team is taking advantage of their compromising style.

Types of Compromising


Appropriate When

  • Splitting the difference
  • Exchanging concessions
  • Finding middle ground
  • Both parties may feel they lost the battle and feel the need to get even next time.
  • No relationship is established although it should also not cause relationship to deteriorate.
  • Danger of stalemate
  • Does not explore the issue in any depth
  • Time pressures require quick solutions.
  • Collaboration or competition fails.
  • Short-term solutions are needed until more information can be obtained.

4. Accommodating

This style indicates that someone is prepared to meet the needs of others and at the expense of their own needs. This is unlikely to be a suitable style for a P3 manager whose primary interest is to meet the needs (objectives) of the project, programme or portfolio. It should only be adopted if it is the only way to resolve a conflict and the impact of non-resolution is worse than the necessary concessions.

Situations when this mode is useful include when an individual realises they are wrong and accepts a better solution when the issue is more important to the other person or party which can be seen as a good gesture and builds social credits for future use, when damage may result if the leader continues to push their own agenda, when a leader wants to allow the team to develop and learn from their own mistakes, and when harmony needs to be maintained to avoid trouble within the team. This mode should not be used when the outcome is critical to the success of the team and when safety is an absolute necessity to the resolution of the conflict.

Types of Accommodating


Appropriate When

  • Playing down the conflict to maintain surface harmony
  • Self-sacrifice
  • Yielding to the other point of view
  • Builds relationships that will allow you to be more effective in future problem solving
  • Increases the chances that the other party may be more accommodating to your needs in the future
  • Does not improve communication
  • You are flexible on the outcome, or when the issue is more important to the other party.
  • Preserving harmony is more important than the outcome.
  • It’s necessary to build up good faith for future problem solving.
  • You are wrong or in a situation where competition could damage your position.

5. Avoiding

People who prefer this style seek to evade the conflict or pass it on to another. The only situations where this can really be acceptable are where a P3 manager genuinely believes that someone else is better placed to resolve a conflict.

It would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for a P3 manager to pass responsibility for resolving a conflict with a senior stakeholder to the sponsor – but in a structured way, not just ignoring the problem and hoping the sponsor will resolve it.

Situations when this mode is useful include when emotions are elevated and everyone involved needs time to calm down so that productive discussions can take place, the issue is of low importance, the team is able to resolve the conflict without participation from leadership, there are more important matters that need to be addressed, and the benefit of avoiding the conflict outweighs the benefit of addressing it. This mode should not be used when the conflict needs to be resolved in a timely manner and when the reason for ignoring the conflict is just that.

Types of Avoidance


Appropriate When

  • Physical flight
  • Mental withdrawal
  • Changing the subject
  • Blaming or minimising
  • Denial that the problem exists
  • Postponement to a more appropriate time (which may never occur)
  • Use of emotions (tears, anger, etc.)
  • The dispute is not resolved.
  • Disputes often build up and eventually explode.
  • Low satisfaction results in complaining, discontentment, and talking back.
  • Stress spreads to other parties (e.g., co-workers, family).
  • The issue is trivial or unimportant, or another issue is more pressing
  • Potential damage outweighs potential benefits
  • Timing for dealing with the conflict is inappropriate (because of overwhelming emotions or lack of information)

Designing your online course with opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with you, the material and each other is important for learning and helps maintain student motivation, together with minimising chances of conflicts in the online environment. One of the ways of student engagement is using discussion boards or chat rooms, whereby the instructor weaves the discussion to extract meaning and guide the direction of the discussion.