Coping With Conflict When it Emerges
Conflict is inevitable in any relationship or professional setting. It is important to consider how to navigate conflict, especially when it has an adverse impact on your experience. Addressing and resolving conflicts with supervisors can feel intimidating due to power dynamics between the supervisor and supervisee. However, there are options for addressing problems you may encounter during your program.
What is Conflict?
Many sources of conflict in supervisory relationships can be categorized in these areas:
- Personality and preferences (e.g. different ways of relating to each other, strong personality differences that may result in miscommunications)
- Availability (e.g., challenges reaching supervisor, scheduling meetings, cancelled meetings, need for ongoing support with research and mentorship)
- Communication (e.g., quality of feedback, timeliness, tone, communication styles)
- Timelines and Staying on Track (e.g., unanticipated or unclear timelines, difficulty meeting deadlines, barriers to degree progress)
- Expectations (e.g., hours to be worked, time commitment to projects)
- Funding (e.g., students requesting funding, delayed payment)
- Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (e.g., bias, discrimination, inequitable treatment)
*If you have concerns around sexual harassment, discrimination, and sexual violence, please consult McGill’s Equity Resources.
Before Conflict Arises
Planning ahead is often the best tool for preventing confusion or misunderstandings that lead to conflict. Many sources of conflict stem from miscommunication or a mismatch in expectations. One step that can help address these issues and define expectations is the Letter of Understanding (please refer to your respective academic unit for a letter template). A carefully written letter can help you and your supervisor explicitly outline expectations for your program. Letters of Understanding should refer to the areas listed above, including expectations about:
- the frequency and mode of communication
- employment if you are also employed by your supervisor (pay, hours worked)
- And your timeline for degree completion, among others.
The letter can serve as a helpful starting point for discussion if there are deviations from the agreements outlined in it. Writing the letter of understanding should be a collaborative process, where both parties contribute to forming the agreements through mutual decision-making, and it should be reviewed periodically to ensure it remains relevant.
Because addressing conflict can create anxiety, supervisees may delay an important conversation with their supervisor. However, many solutions can be simpler than anticipated. Addressing potential conflicts sooner rather than later can prevent situations from escalating. GPS recommends that if conflict occurs during your program with your supervisor, it is optimal to first address the issue informally in dialogue with your supervisor.
If you are unsure how to start the conversation, use your network of research colleagues, trusted faculty, committee members, cohort members, and other doctoral students for feedback. For further support in addressing difficult conflicts, you may also consider contacting the Office of the Ombudsperson. The Ombudsperson offers “confidential, informal, independent, and impartial dispute resolution services” to all McGill students. The Ombudsperson can provide useful consultation and outline your options before escalating the situation to formal processes of conflict resolution.
If Informal Resolution Does Not Work
If a resolution cannot be reached by addressing the conflict with your supervisor, consider contacting your Graduate Program Director (GPD). Should resolution not be reached following GPD intervention, McGill proposes formal channels for resolving disputes with a detailed step-by-step process for resolving conflict and progressing with conflict resolution options should a solution not be immediate.
Your Rights as a Student
The McGill Student Rights and Responsibilities website is the official guide to the formalized policies involved in conflict resolution, your rights as a student, and the process of escalation for resolving conflict.
There are many personal reasons for wanting to change supervisors ranging from changing research interests and preferences in supervision styles, to outright interpersonal conflicts with your supervisor or other supervisees. Sometimes a change is helpful to support your degree progress. Regardless of your reasons, it is always prudent to review your respective departmental policies and procedures for changing supervisors and to discuss the change with your supervisor. Your Department Chair is responsible for ensuring you are provided with appropriate supervision throughout your program. PGSS also offers advice on navigating supervisor changes.
Special considerations are due when you are also the employee of your supervisor. The Letter of Understanding is a good tool to ensure that employment conditions are transparent. Be sure to discuss details of employment like payment amount, start and end dates, and the hours to be worked and include them in your LOU. Some regulations apply to student employment. As a student, you should work a maximum of 180 hours per 15-week term. Specific rules may apply to international students. Note that if you receive a stipend from your supervisor, these funds are meant to support your own academic work and may not be used in work-for-pay situations.
Since employment may occupy much of your time, it is important to include your work responsibilities on yearly progress tracking so that your supervisory committee can properly evaluate your progress and make recommendations. This is particularly important when you are employed by someone other than your supervisor, whether inside the university or not.
Finally, when necessary, it is necessary to declare any Conflicts of Interest that may exist. This may be the case when members of the University are engaged in activities that may lead to personal gain or improper advantage, such as business ventures related to research. Disclosing a Conflict of Interest does not necessarily impede a research activity from being developed. Rather, they are meant to promote transparency, help manage risk, and avoid potential conflicts.
Resources: Who Can Assist Me?
A great starting point is your Graduate Program Director or Department Chair. For confidential support, the Ombudsperson is a primary resource. For a detailed list of offices responsible for both informal and informal dispute resolution (including filing grievances), please see the guide offered by Student Rights and Responsibilities.
Additional areas of support are:
- PGSS: Detailed resources from the Post-Graduate Students’ Society
- Student Advocacy Program: Free and confidential advice on conflict resolution at McGill
- The Office of the Dean of Students: Offers support for students’ rights and well-being
- Student Wellness Hub: Offers mental health services and support groups/workshops on well-being and interpersonal effectiveness specific to MA and PhD students
- Office for Mediation and Reporting
- Safe Disclosure Whistle Blowing Reporting
- McGill Secretariat Dispute Resolution
Dealing With Conflict: Clarity, Meeting in the Middle, and Taking Care of Ourselves
One of the biggest predictors of completing a graduate program is the supervisor-supervisee relationship. When conflict arises, it can adversely impact not only your relationship, but your ability to make degree progress. Supervision can look different across programs, across students, even over time with the same supervisee. Like all relationships, supervisory relationships can be vulnerable to conflict. However, how we approach and manage conflict when it manifests is critical to moving forward. An essential part of conflict management is empathy, perspective, and making sure your basic mental health needs are being met.
Implicit understanding and informal agreements may seem efficient in the short term, however they can lead to ambiguity and misunderstanding as individuals may interpret scenarios differently. In addition to the Letter of Understanding, having agreements in writing is helpful. Being able to refer to agreements via paper-trail or email records can assist in situations where conflict may arise. Having a paper-trail can also facilitate the conflict mediation process if you require assistance from a third party from the university to assist in conflict resolution.
Humanizing Your Supervisor
There are multiple sides to every conflict, with the perspectives and preferences of both the supervisor and supervisee playing a significant role. Compounding these differences, we also occupy multiple roles that can complicate communication. For example, as the supervisee, you may also be a collaborator, employee, mentee, and in some cases, friend.
Interactions with your supervisor are also coloured by your personalities. Perhaps your supervisor’s style is more hands off, but you prefer more feedback and structure. Acknowledging these perspectives and preferences can help you and your supervisor to “meet in the middle” when possible.
Finally, directly expressing your supervision preferences can be helpful. Remember, the type of supervision you require can change throughout the course of your program. Expressing what support you need and when you need it can help you work with your supervisor in ways that are more suitable for both parties.
It is not uncommon for supervisees to experience personal struggles that result in missed deadlines, challenges with time management, and inadequate work quality. This can lead to conflict with supervisors. Everyone encounters difficulty and what you choose to share with your supervisor is your personal choice. However, sometimes it is beneficial to share ongoing challenges. Additionally, conflict itself can be a mental health stressor. If you need additional support, The Wellness Hub is available to offer mental health services.
Questions for Reflection
- How would you rate the quality of your supervisory relationship? In what areas do you work well together? What areas need work? Are there ways that improved communication can resolve ongoing issues?
- What role can I play in resolving the conflict? If accessible, has the source of conflict already been brought to the attention of my supervisor?
- Who can I consult about conflict and who can offer support? Consider whether you want confidential, unbiased feedback, or if it is advantageous to consult with someone familiar with the situation.