Volume 78 | Issue 4
July 2010

Exploring peer supervisors' experiences with conflict

Andy Mitchell

In his book “Fables, Labels, and Folding Tables,” Randy Mitchell recalled when he was granted a position as acting associate vice president of student affairs for enrollment services. He discussed how it changed his relationships with his former co-workers whom he now supervised. In a conversation with a colleague-turned-subordinate, he also offered the subtext:

“Well, it looks like I’ll be working with you even more closely now. (I sure hope they accept me in this new capacity.)”

“Great. (Why did he get the nod? I’ve been here just as long.)”

“… My relationship with you is important. Nothing’s going to change. (Of course everything will change. Like it or not, this is a power relationship, and I’m feeling like I have all of the responsibility here to make it work.)”

It seems unreasonable to expect students to navigate similar situations when placed in the role of a peer supervisor given that the transition is difficult even for seasoned student affairs professionals. Students who supervise their peers have a great deal of stress placed upon them. They must make sense of complex relationships with others who constantly place different demands upon them. Furthermore, there is a changed relationship involved when a co-worker is promoted to a supervisor. Students who the supervisor worked with last year could potentially be reporting to them now.

Conflict is inevitable in any workplace; however, a recent study explored how peer supervisors experience conflict in their work and the implications for those who train and mentor student employees.

Literature review
Identity development

Student supervisors are expected to be both peer and supervisor to other students. However, the labeling of “peer” and “supervisor” is an external definition placed upon them by their co-workers and employers. Whether students internally define themselves by these terms is a question of self-authorship, which by necessity explores both their understanding of themselves as well as their relationships with others.

In his book “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life,” Robert Kegan explores the internal definition of self in his subject-object theory. He states that subject is inherently a part of how individuals define themselves, whereas the object can be seen as simply one aspect of many which make us who we are. Furthermore, he divides the development of people into five orders of consciousness. According to Kegan’s theory, most college students will be within the second or third orders of consciousness. During this time, students will have difficulty identifying themselves from the multiple perspectives of both peer and supervisor. If they can do this, they likely will be able to navigate the different identities with others on a case-by-case basis. For some, these students would identify as a supervisor and for others as a peer. However, navigating both the role of supervisor and peer at the same time would be quite difficult, requiring an understanding that both “peer” and “supervisor” are not two sides of a coin but rather two aspects which compose a more complicated identity.

Conflict management and power
In their article, “Preparing Students for Early Work Conflicts,” Laura Meyers and R. Sam Larson describe three types of conflict found within organizations: relational, process, and task. Relational conflicts focus on the relationships between those involved in the conflict. Process conflict develops from disagreements on how to accomplish organizational goals, and task conflict focuses on disagreements about the basic goals of the organization. L.L. Greer, Karen Jehn, and Elizabeth Mannix, in their article “Conflict Transformation: An Exploration of the Interrelationships between Task, Relationship, and Process Conflict” state that although relational and process conflict typically have a negative effect on group outcomes, task conflict can have a positive effect. They further state that although it can distract group members, “Task conflict can improve team performance through allowing teams to accommodate and synthesize multiple points of view, thereby improving member understanding of and commitment to the task at hand as well as ultimate decision quality and team performance.”

Benefits of conflict can also be seen in group formation and process. Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development purport a model of group process that includes the stages of forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning. Conflict plays a predominant role in the storming stage of this model, and can theoretically help to develop a stronger group. In addition, “The Differnet Drum: Community Making and Peace” characterizes community development as occuring through four stages: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community.” Again, the community develops through conflict into a deeper connection. Without this conflict, the community remains superficial and will fail to meet its members’ needs.

In their Business Communications Quarterly article “Preparing Students for Early Work Conflicts,” Laura Meyers and Sam Larson also discuss the importance of third parties in the management of this conflict. They argue that conflict occurs in social settings and, therefore, affects more than just those engaged in the conflict, whether those people are inside or outside the organization. These third parties are not themselves the mediators. Rather, conversations with these third parties serve as a coping mechanism, preparation, an information-seeking practice, or as a way to gain moral support. Furthermore, Meyers and Larson reported that students found organizational insiders to be the more helpful third parties with whom to
discuss conflicts.

This study utilized a focus group to provide general data with follow-up interviews of the participants to provide more in-depth information regarding their experiences. Participants for this study were all working in a position on campus in which they directly supervised other students. These positions were paid or unpaid, and attention was given to ensure a diverse variety of backgrounds and that both male and female participants were included.

In all, there were four participants in this research: Maddie, Emily, Danny, and Katie. Due to the specific nature of their positions, information regarding the background of the participants will be generalized to protect their confidentiality. Three participants were fourth-year students and one was a third-year student. The four students’ majors were public relations, accounting and finance, international business and Spanish, and accounting. It was coincidental that all four students were working toward business degrees. These students held a variety of positions. One student worked in an unpaid position in new student orientation as marketing and publications chair, one worked as a front desk supervisor in a residence hall, and two were directors of an on-campus, student-run business enterprise. Of the four participants, three participated in the focus group and follow-up interviews. Due to scheduling conflicts, Emily was unable to participate in the focus group and participated in an interview using a modified protocol that combined both focus group and individual interview questions.

Participants experienced conflict in mostly interpersonal ways
Maddie, Katie, and Danny each described and defined conflict in mostly interpersonal terms, focusing mostly on the relational aspects of conflict. Katie defined conflict as when “people are at odds for whatever particular reason about a situation, or how it was handled. They can’t seem to come to some sort of resolution.” Danny stated that it was “a difference of thought or belief between people of two groups, and it comes up in a situation where they would have to make a decision.” Maddie said that it is “not a disagreement between two people, but I think the conflict and disagreement do go hand in hand, but conflict is a whole different level, not necessarily a bad thing. I do think it sets off disagreements.” In each of these definitions, conflict has the potential to create disagreements and is intrinsic to how various groups or individuals relate with one another.

Furthermore, this idea of conflict as a relational issue was apparent in examples of conflict the participants discussed. For example, Katie discussed a situation with her co-workers: “I’ve been a little frustrated with the ordering that is going on. I don’t help out with that, but sometimes I’ll do some sales reporting. I analyze how effective our ordering is, but I don’t have a lot of say in the actual ordering. … I don’t understand the logic on why the person who does the ordering won’t go back and look at precedent. I get livid. I’m like so frustrated with it. … I’m just like, ‘I’ll do it if you teach me how to do it.’ She just doesn’t want to give up that power, and that’s fine, but do it right. I’m just beyond livid with it.”

Again, whereas this conflict could be discussed in terms of a process or task conflict with how the organization functions or her inability to do ordering, Katie tended to focus on her relationship with the other person involved, ascribing control issues to the other party involved in the conflict.

Danny also discussed a similar situation: “It looks like someone is ending up showing up to a shift they aren’t supposed to, and someone is already sitting there. The person is coming in and they are like: ‘Well, someone’s already sitting there. They are already at the shift.’ So that popped up a couple times, and we’re struggling to find out who exactly is taking that shift [and] why they are taking it. … We don’t know who it is, so we ended up sending out e-mails reminding everyone of their shifts. Sending out every schedule and then meeting with, checking time cards, trying to figure out why this person is taking the wrong shift. I don’t know if you can call that conflict, but it’s a problem for us.”

When asked why he would not consider it a conflict, he said: “It’s more of a misunderstanding, at least right now. I don’t know if there is an actual problem or if it is just a misunderstanding or miscommunication.” Danny seemed to understand that this is not a relational conflict, but he had trouble defining conflict itself as something other than an interpersonal experience.
Emily was able to ideate best a definition of conflict beyond a relational concept. She stated: “I try not to think of conflict as necessarily a bad thing. I try to focus on the building process that can come from conflict—the resolution and how you can move forward and improve the situation of conflict. … Conflict to me is an opportunity to grow and build the team and build the relationships and improve.” This definition focuses on the building process of conflict, and while encompassing relational conflict, is not limited to it.

Life experience formed the basis for understanding conflict
All of the participants discussed the importance of experience when relating how they would approach the conflicts they face. Maddie said: “I think that it’s something that you have to look back on your past experiences and how you can use those life experiences … to better everyone in the situation.” Danny continued that line of thought adding: “I agree with that. I mean, the life lessons you learn throughout your life so far, that’s what you are going to be having to use in that situation to resolve it as best as possible. Everyone has different experiences and, therefore, will deal with situations differently.”

Katie also reflected on how important it is to have the ability to change perspectives when discussing conflict, which other participants echoed, especially when acting as mediators. Danny also felt it was important for him to have input from someone else when approaching a conflict because “you might be heavy one way and they might be heavy another. You sort of make a middle ground that you can look at and say ‘this is good’.”

Correlations between confidence and understanding of conflict
While the participants mostly felt confident in their abilities to address conflict, there was one notable exception. Maddie said: “Because I don’t like it, I don’t always feel comfortable managing it.” When asked how she felt when faced with conflict with at work, Maddie added: “I don’t like it. I don’t think anyone really likes it, though. I’m a people pleaser. I like to make everyone happy. I like to have everyone really content about what’s going on, I kind of try to resolve it so everyone feels good about it, everyone is happy, even though I’m not satisfied. I try to stay away from conflict as much as possible, but I do try to resolve it in a way that makes everyone happy.”

The other participants discussed conflict and seemed to make meaning of it in less relational ways but with varying degrees of success. When Katie discussed how she felt when facing conflict, she stated: “I’ve never been someone to bring on conflict. I don’t particularly care for it. I think a lot of times it can be pretty easily resolved. Sometimes it’s just even understanding the fact that you won’t come to a resolution.”

When asked how confident she felt when facing conflict, Katie continued, stating: “At times yes, at times not. Sometimes I get frustrated with certain aspects. There are inefficiencies and people say ‘no’ when I know there is an answer. I think sometimes there are so many different hands in [the company] that there aren’t a lot of people who have a full understanding. … I feel relatively confident that I can work through certain things, but it has been a challenge to work with certain personalities at times.”

Katie moved from discussing process conflict when discussing how few people in the company could understand the complexity of it, to more relational conflict by mentioning the challenges of working with other personalities. The meaning she made of conflict is seemingly more complex than that of Maddie, and she seemed to be slightly more comfortable when confronted with conflict.

Danny’s understanding of conflict was even more complex than Katie’s or Maddie’s. His example demonstrated an ability to discuss conflict without placing an emphasis on relational issues, but he seemed to be unable to give voice to this understanding. Danny also seemed to be more comfortable addressing conflict. When asked how he felt when faced with conflict at work, he said: “Other than that annoyance and curiosity, it’s just kind of an interesting situation each time to find out what’s going on and put it all together like a puzzle.”
Emily seemed to have the most complex definition of conflict, defining it in the most positive way of the participants as an opportunity to grow. Furthermore, when asked how she felt when she faced conflict, she said: “Over time, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it—comfortable in that I am going to be able to tactfully voice my opinion and find a good way to approach the conflict.” She demonstrated a greater confidence than others.

Participants’ responses indicated that the better able they were to define conflict beyond a relational context, the more confident they were when faced with conflict in the workplace. Emily clearly described why this may be the case. “I guess it depends on the situation,” she said. “Like, No. 1, the topic that the conflict is about. If it’s a personal thing, I’m much less confident than if it’s a professional thing. I do tend to take things a lot more personally, like if it’s something that is aimed at something I can’t change about myself, something that is about me, I would not be as comfortable or confident that I could handle it appropriately, than if it was something about a task we were trying to accomplish or some external factor.”

Theoretical perspective
Emily clearly stated that the more personally involved she was in a conflict, the less confident she was when addressing it. In terms of developmental theory, the ability to view conflict in more abstract ways led to a greater understanding of the types of conflicts that participants faced in the workplace. When conflict was not seen as relational, participants could remove their personal involvement, allowing them to “take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise act upon” the conflict, as Kegan said.

Maddie and Katie may have been less confident in their abilities addressing conflict because of their personal involvement in the conflict. If conflict is “subject,” then the experience of conflict is intrinsically linked to their own self-awareness and identity. If Katie and Maddie addressed conflict while it was “subject,” then there would be a much greater personal stake in any conflict in which they participate. The greater the personal risk, the less confidence they would have. A more complex understanding of conflict would demonstrate that the experience of conflict had been made “object.” With a more abstract understanding of conflict, conflict then becomes much less a personally involved experience.

Applications and future research
One of the applications of this research is to refine the importance of helping students reflect upon their experiences. If life experience informs how students approach conflict to the degree that the participants reported, it is important that students are making sense of the conflict they experience to form a foundation for how they approach future conflict. Furthermore, validating their experience of conflict and their approach to conflict will assist in their creation of an internal perspective on conflict, building self-authorship in their work, as Marcia Baxter Magolda and Patricia King reported in their book “Learning Partnerships: Theory and Models of Practice to Educate for Self-Authorship.”

All of the participants stated that they had little to no formal training on conflict and that it could be valuable to them. Perhaps some training other than life experience would assist student supervisors in being more successful when conflicts arise. Such training could focus on helping students to define conflict in nonrelational terms so that they can more confidently and efficiently manage it. Additionally, reflections on the positive outcomes from conflict might prevent some peer supervisors from shying away from confrontation.

Establishing relationships with other managers or supervisors was a source of support that the participants identified as being beneficial. It is important to note that these professionals may be more helpful in simply listening to a student supervisor’s frustrations as opposed to serving as a mediator. This is another opportunity for peer supervisors to reflect on a conflict and work toward self-authorship in the workplace.

An area of further research could be examining whether this experience of conflict is prevalent among other peer supervisors or just at the undergraduate student employee level. The participants expressed great surprise that they faced so many of the same issues given the diversity of their associated work. Interestingly, Mitchell also discussed his conflict in a relational context despite presumably having years more life experience in facing conflict. One might argue that many student and professional employees could benefit from introspection regarding their understanding of and reactions to conflict.

Editor’s Note: Limitations of this research include both the small sample size and that all of the participants majored in a degree within the business school, making it difficult to make generalizations. While the correlation between the participants’ confidence and the complexity of their understanding of conflict, this may not represent the truth outside of these participants.