Feuds With a History

A new manager comes into a department with warring parties. C.K. Gunsalus advises sticking to formal procedures and forgetting informal peace-making.

April 4, 2011

Dear Survival Guide,

I am reading your book The College Administrator’s Survival Guide and would appreciate further insight into what is written on page 108-109 where you discuss seeking advice from professionals and say:

"…use formal process if the situation or problem has any of these characteristics:

  • involves people who are extremely volatile,
  • involves unusually large power differences—as when a student complains about the conduct of a star faculty member,
  • has deep roots in the past (when people start to tell you about it, the first event they want to describe is 5 or 10 years ago),
  • involves allegations that, if true, are serious or possibly criminal, including the use of illegal substances,
  • involves sexual relationships."

These all make sense to me except the middle one (deep roots in the past). Can you say more?

R. Kent Crookston

Brigham Young University

Hi Kent,

In the question you've raised, my advice is premised on the concept that, if the enmity between people has a long history, there's little to no hope of resolving the problem informally.

A new chair/head will often come into a situation with a 10- (or 15- or 20-) year history and think "I'll give everyone a clean slate and take them as I find them." In general, this is a great philosophy and a good way to start in a new place.

However, with people who have been warring with each other for many years, who have historically pushed boundaries, bullied others, filed complaints against others, found ways for years to be on opposite sides of a schism, etc., I've actually never seen this work. An optimistic starting point is good: maybe the simple change of leadership with a clean slate will change the environment.

Usually, it does not, though, as you find patterns where the combatants are so invested in their disputes they find them very hard to give up. Thus, the instant the new beginning is provided, the warriors start to accumulate complaints against others (or against the clean slate person), and renew their battles. Sometimes these conflict-lovers will reopen the same old issues, and sometimes they move onto new ones. Either way, what happens next will follow time-worn patterns. That’s your cue to stop all informal attempts to solve the problem and never, never, never attempt any form of mediation or conciliation.

Trying shuttle diplomacy or compromise in these situations is like getting in the middle of a bitter divorce: the enmity runs deep enough that whatever arises is rarely about what it's about. The topic of the complaint usually just happens to be the most recent vehicle for axe-grinding, finding ways to take it out on each other, or gaining attention and energy from you or others.

As the leader, when you happen into a situation that has deep historical roots of bad feelings between or among the parties, the best possible response is to lay some process on the situation. The more formal the procedure you select, the better, as formal process provides built-in boundaries, ground rules for all participants, and a set completion point where once the stipulated appeals are over, it's done. In informal attempts, none of those apply.

If you find yourself the new leader of a group that has a history of rancor and long-past events repeatedly come up in meetings, the first line of defense is to develop and use — every time the topic comes up — the same words or phrases. "I am going to rule that out of order. Let’s talk about the future, as none of us can do anything about what happened X years ago." "Since I cannot change what Professor N did before I arrived on campus, let’s focus our discussion on the choices before us now. We will not address this topic in this forum again."

In the best of all possible worlds, others in the environment will chime in and help change the topic, sending the signal that the topic has been exhausted. They are likely weary of it after living it for years, so this is not an unusual outcome, though it does take a strong and repeated effort to close the topic. If that alone is not enough, and the complaints are raised in public meetings, the best path is to lay process on the situation by clarifying how and what items will get on agendas for meetings that command the time of others so they can be ruled out of order by agreement of the group every time the old axe is brought out for sharpening or use. This may require group process that could involve changing the bylaws, etc. It will be worth the preventive time and that process can help change the environment by shaping the group understanding of how they want their time to be used in meetings. Clarifying that you understand that the time of all involved is precious and you want to use that resource respectfully and for greatest value will be appreciated.

If the parties are actively sparring in terms of ongoing complaints or conflicts, it may be necessary for you to investigate your institution’s procedures. Once you know what they are, you will first say and then document in writing something along the following lines: "Your concerns about the actions of Professor N are governed by the Policy on XXX. For any aspect of them to be addressed, the provisions of the policy for filing a grievance/complaint must be followed. I am providing a copy of the policy. These matters may only be addressed through that procedure from now on." Or, "the matters you have brought to my attention regarding Professor N are covered by the Policy on XXX. I have referred the matter to Person A in Office B for review. She will be contacting you. Until that review is complete, it is important that you not discuss this matter outside the process. Here is a copy of the policy. The policy provides that you may be accompanied by a person of your choice when you are interviewed. It is an obligation of your employment to participate in the process." Then, hold the line and do not engage with any provocation on the same topic again; keep referring it to the process.

If your institution’s polices are properly drafted, they will lay out the procedure to be followed, the process for a decision to be reached and for any appeal. At the conclusion of that process (yes, I know it takes a lot of time; so does listening to issues that have been going on for 15 years), you will then be in a situation to say "This matter is closed and there is no further institutional recourse." Sometimes, people will take their grudges outside to legal proceedings. That’s a choice that could always be made, and while lawsuits are not pleasant, they also have a set of rules — and costs — that are externally enforced.

None of that really covers the situation where you have someone who is unhappy and creative and manages constantly to raise new issues against the other camp. Still, consult with resource people on your campus and find out if there are ways you can jump the informal stages of whatever process might be involved to move directly to formal consideration. There are often ways in procedures to certify that you believe, in light of the last 12 matters raised between these parties, that informal interactions are likely to be of little value and seek a waiver of the initial procedure to escalate it directly to the next, more formal stage.

This is a lot of words to say that long-term feuds are bad for everyone in the environment. If you can separate the parties in a way that keeps the playing field level — that is, so that everyone is still doing a full job’s worth of duties — that is worth considering. If you can assign new duties that better suit the talents and energy of the warring parties, sometimes keeping people busier with pursuits they are good at — and that contribute to the overall mission — can be a good outcome. What never works is to attempt to talk your way through deep-seated disputes that are mired in history or profound personal animosity.

Does that help?

--Survival Guide

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