Coping With Conflict When it Emerges
Conflict is inevitable in any relationship or professional setting. When you find yourself in situations with supervisees where conflict begins to impact your experience or productivity adversely, it is important to consider how to navigate conflict effectively.
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.
Acknowledging Power Dynamics
It can be challenging for supervisees to disclose conflict or ongoing issues due to the power dynamics that inevitably exist between supervisor and supervisee. A power imbalance is inherent to the supervisory relationship since supervisees depend on their supervisors in many areas including funding, their career development, progress in their degree, and even employment. Supervisees may avoid addressing conflict because they fear a negative reaction from their supervisors. It may be useful to explicitly acknowledge these power dynamics and create a safe space for both you and your supervisees to discuss ongoing issues. This way, problems can be addressed before they escalate.
Before Conflict Arises
Advance planning is often the best tool for preventing confusion or misunderstandings that lead to conflict with supervisees. Many sources of conflict stem from communication challenges or a mismatch in expectations. One critical milestone that can help address these issues and define expectations is a Letter or Understanding (please consult your respective academic unit for a letter template). A carefully articulated letter can help you and your supervisee explicitly outline expectations for their degree program and about other aspects of your relationship, such as employment. If there are deviations from the agreements in the letter, it can serve as a helpful starting point for discussion and resolution. Preparing this Letter of Understanding should be a collaborative process, where both parties have an opportunity to review, contribute, and agree on the letter’s elements through mutual decision-making. Since the supervisory relationship changes over time, the Letter of Understanding should be revisted periodically to ensure it continues to be relevant. Starting the supervisory relationship with clear and open communication is one of the most effective ways to avoid or minimize conflict.
Addressing conflict with supervisees can often be a source of anxiety or discomfort, leading to delays in holding important conversations. However, sometimes the solutions are simpler than we expect. Addressing conflict sooner rather than later can prevent situations from escalating.
GPS recommends that if conflict occurs during your program with your supervisee, first address the issue informally, starting with a dialogue with your student. If you are unsure how to start the dialogue, your fellow committee members, Graduate Program Director (GPD), or Associate Dean for your Faculty or GPS can often provide helpful advice. Prior to raising an issue with your supervisee, it is critical to first review relevant policies and procedures as outlined by your respective department and/or McGill more generally.
If Informal Resolution Does Not Work
If a resolution cannot be reached by addressing the conflict directly with your supervisee, you may consider contacting your Graduate Program Director or Department Chair for mediation or formal intervention. As noted in the GPS Regulations on Graduate Student Supervision, section 2.2.
The Chair of the academic unit should ensure that procedures are in place to address serious disagreements that may arise, for example, between a student and a supervisor or between a supervisor and committee members. Such procedures should involve a neutral mediator, such as the Graduate Program Director, who will ensure that all sides of a dispute are heard before any decision is made. If the issue cannot be resolved at the unit level, then an Associate Dean from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies should be contacted.
Changing Your Supervisory Role
There are many personal reasons why a supervisor and supervisee may wish to no longer continue the supervisory relationship including changes in the interpersonal dynamic over time, evolving research interests, diverging areas of expertise, or preferences in supervision styles. Regardless of the reasons, it is important to explore all methods of resolution before this route is taken, such as securing a co-supervisor with relevant qualities (e.g., expertise, interpersonal style, resources). Additionally, it is always helpful to review your respective departmental policies and procedures for changing your supervisory role. Please be sure to discuss with supervisees in advance that this is a possibility. The FAQs for supervisors provide additional guidance on changes in supervision.
Special considerations are due when you also act as the employer of your supervisee. Transparency is a must in these situations, and the Letter of Understanding is a good tool to ensure that employment conditions are clear. Be sure to include details of employment like payment amount, start and end dates, and the hours to be worked. Some regulations apply to student employment. For example, supervisees should work a maximum of 180 hours per 15-week term. Specific rules may apply to international students. Note that stipends paid to supervisees are meant to support students’ own academic work and may not be used in work-for-pay situations.
Since employment may occupy a significant amount of supervisees’ time, encourage them to disclose work responsibilities on yearly progress tracking so that the supervisory committee can properly evaluate student progress and make recommendations. This is particularly important when supervisees are employed by someone other than their 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, including supervisees, 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. As noted in the GPS Regulations on Graduate Student Supervision, section 2.2. The McGill Secretariat may also assist in dispute resolution. The Office for Mediation and Reporting provides confidential consultations and references to available resources in addition to handling formal reports of discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence at McGill.
Dealing With Conflict: Empathy, Meeting in the Middle, and Multiple Roles
One of the biggest predictors of whether a student will successfully complete their graduate program is the supervisor-student relationship. Supervision can look different across programs, across students, and even over time with the same supervisee. Like all relationships, supervisory relationships can be vulnerable to conflict. When conflict arises, it can adversely impact not only your relationship, but also the student’s ability to make degree progress. However, it is possible to approach and manage conflict when it manifests in a way that helps both parties move forward.
The Two Sides of Conflict
There are multiple sides to every conflict, with both the supervisor and supervisee perspectives playing significant roles. In addition to these perspectives, our own idiosyncrasies and preferences can affect how we work and how we view (and are viewed) in a conflict situation. Supervisors also occupy multiple roles. For example, as the supervisor, you may be an expert, mentor, coach, employer, and in some cases, friend. These roles are further coloured by personality differences. Perhaps your supervision style is more engaged, but your supervisee prefers more independence. Although it may not be possible to change these differences, there are ways to better understand and work with them.
It can be helpful to identify what your preferences are as a supervisor and to delineate between the various “hats” you wear, as well as those of your supervisee. Having a clearer and more nuanced perspective on everyone’s roles and personalities may provide opportunities to “meet in the middle.”
Implicit understanding and informal agreements may seem efficient in the short term. However, they can lead to misunderstanding and conflict. 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 reduce the numbers of areas in which conflict may otherwise arise.
Behind the Conflict: Seeing the Unseen
Conflict can be frustrating. Supervisors may ask, “why aren’t my students keeping to the agreed upon timeline?” or “why are their Research Assistant duties slipping?” These are valid concerns. In approaching such conflicts, it can be helpful to seek to understand by not only addressing the surface behaviour but also looking into the “why” behind the behaviour. There may be critical warning signs to help identify students who are experiencing difficulty. There are various resources available to support struggling students to help them successfully complete their degree.
Questions for Reflection
- What is 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 is your supervision style? Is it complimentary to your supervisee's approach? If there is a discrepancy, are there opportunities to meet in the middle?