A Case Study of Conflict in an

A Case Study of Conflict in an Educational Workplace: Managing Personal and Cultural Differences

by Michael John Torpey – 2006

This article is about conflict in an educational workplace setting. It reports on a case study investigating the emergence, development, and management of conflict among diverse native English speakers working as language instructors within a Japanese university. The example of conflict presented, which deals with divergent assumptions about the nature and management of collaborative research projects, illustrates how communication is inextricably tied to culture, out of whose interplay conflict may arise. This example also highlights one of the most important challenges facing educators the world over: how to encourage people to cooperatively address and manage conflicts. This challenge requires us as educators, in both our individual and institutional capacities, to become more conversant with practices in the field of conflict resolution and management. Such familiarity is a prerequisite to us becoming exemplary models of its practices for our students, our colleagues, our organizations, and our society.

As we move further into the 21st century, our daily interactions, whether at work, school, or play, are becoming more and more complex. People from different backgrounds are increasingly being drawn into close and challenging relationships with each other. This trend underscores the need to better understand the challenges that people are often confronted with in their everyday lives, most notably in the workplace. This development calls for research that focuses on the complex social processes occurring in contexts comprising people of different backgrounds (Hermans & Kempen, 1998).

This article reports on a study undertaken to investigate and describe the ways that people from diverse backgrounds create and manage specific events in an intercultural/multicultural setting. Specifically, it reports on aspects of a case study investigating the emergence, development, and management of conflicts among diverse native English speakers working as language instructors within a Japanese university. This study is valuable for two reasons. First, though the teaching of English by native speakers is a ubiquitous phenomenon throughout the world, research investigating the conflicts that may emerge in intercultural or multicultural settings where native English speakers work together is limited.1 Second, the setting is illustrative of the broader context in which more and more people are being confronted with the realities of working in increasingly culturally diverse organizations.

The focus of this study was on elucidating the relationship between culture and conflict, particularly with respect to investigating how culture, as social knowledge and meaning, affected the ways in which words and actions were expressed, perceived, and interpreted in specific contexts within a specific setting. Given this focus, it is appropriate to first clarify what the constructs culture and conflict mean in the context of this research.


Though culture is seen as “a richly rewarding area to pursue,” it is nonetheless “a woefully complex maddeningly dynamic phenomenon” (Faure & Rubin, 1993, p. 228). This complexity was highlighted in the 1950s by anthropologists Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) when, in identifying more than 160 distinct definitions, they illustrated the multiplicity of meanings that the word “culture” can entail, depending on the perspective of its user. One definition that suits the focus of this research is offered by Ting-Toomey (1999), who described culture as “a complex frame of reference that consists of patterns of traditions, beliefs, values, norms, symbols and meanings that are shared to varying degrees by interacting members of a community” (p. 10). This definition encourages a view of culture that extends beyond typical groups such as nationality and race-ethnicity to include other cultural markers-for example, age, gender, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status-typically referred to in research dealing with cultural diversity in the workplace (Fine, 1996; Hamada, 1995; Wanguri, 1996).

In addition, Ting-Toomey’s (1999) definition identifies the “complex,” “varying,” and “interacting” nature of culture. This view complements a recent shift by scholars in the field of conflict resolution who, in moving away from the previously adopted theoretical models that viewed culture as a set of ascribed, uniform, and static traits, have begun to prioritize the subjective, situated, and dynamic nature of cultural identities (Avruch, 1998; Cohen 1993; Faure, 1995; Kimmel, 1994; Lederach, 1995; Trompenaars, 1998). In this regard, culture is a phenomenon that has a con-textualized and variable role to play in the emergence, development, and management of conflict.


Conflict arises out of what Deutsch (1973) termed “incompatibility.” Building on this basic conceptualization, Avruch (1998) provided a useful definition of conflict that encompasses the notions of scarcity and power, as well as perception and belief: “When two related parties-individuals, groups, communities or nation-states-find themselves divided by perceived incompatible interests or goals or in competition for control of scarce resources” (pp. 24-25).

The example presented in this article illustrates the way in which conflict emerges from perceived incompatibility. Although unique, this conflict is nonetheless indicative of the type of challenges that increasingly characterize our times. Accordingly, there is a need for a greater knowledge and application of conflict resolution theories and practices, and we, as educators, have a crucial and exemplary role to play in attending to this need. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to introduce and detail the basic principles and practices comprising the field of conflict resolution (see Deutsch & Coleman, 2000), the potential that a greater awareness of this field holds for us as both individuals and members of institutions bears mention.

First, conflict resolution theory promotes an acceptance of the inevitability of conflict and a realization that conflict is neither inherently good nor bad. Second, research in the field has led to a greater appreciation of both the constructive and destructive potential of conflict, increased awareness of the effects of cooperative and competitive orientations toward conflict, and informed ways of encouraging cooperative endeavors. Such research strongly suggests that the constructive potential of conflict is closely aligned to cooperative problem-solving approaches, as opposed to destructive orientations in which a competitive win-lose struggle ensues (Deutsch, 2000).


The research was conducted in the English Language Centre (ELC) of a private university in Japan. The ELC was established shortly after the university was founded. Its purpose was to complement the English department’s more analytical linguistic approach to language learning, with an explicit focus on developing students’ communicative proficiency. Native English-speaking instructors were seen as the key to facilitating communicative competence, increasing awareness and knowledge of English-speaking cultures, and contributing overall to the university’s mission of educating internationally oriented citizens. Accordingly, the ELC has developed a teacher recruitment policy aimed at exposing the students to major varieties of English spoken throughout the world.


The participants in the study held master’s degrees, predominantly in TE-SOL (Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) or applied linguistics; were aged 25-35; and were from various national and ethnic/racial backgrounds. The majority of these teachers were employed on a 2-year contract with the possibility of a 1-year extension. In addition to teaching English proficiency classes or content courses, the teachers were required to contribute to one of the ongoing institutional research projects related to curriculum renewal or testing.2



Although there is no assured way to investigate the complex social phenomenon of conflict, an exploratory and essentially qualitative approach was adopted. This approach was believed to facilitate explicating how people in a particular context come to understand, account for, and manage their day-today interactions and take action (Miles & Huberman, 1994). The focus on how individuals construct a subjective account of their social world reflects an important guiding premise; that is, any effort to understand conflict and develop appropriate models for managing it needs to be grounded in, and drawn from, the cultural knowledge of those “in situ” (Lederach, 1995).


The data presented in this article stem primarily from interviews. All interviews began along semistructured lines, allowing participants an opportunity to instigate topics.3 This phase was followed by a more structured component that reflected the need to obtain concrete, detailed, and varied perspectives on the interactive or communicative processes inherent in specific conflicts. An analytical framework entitled Conflict and Communication Schemes (see the next section) guided the focus of this phase of the interview. Responses to questions developed in accord with the framework were expected to clarify how communicative processes affected the emergence and development of conflicts in specific contexts within this setting. Data derived from these responses are crucial in understanding the conflict case presented in this article. All interviews were audio recorded and ranged in duration from 45 minutes to 2 hours.


Of particular interest for this study was the relationship between culture and conflict, and the role that communicative processes played in contributing to conflict. Gaining insight required clarifying how culture affected the ways in which individuals and groups expressed themselves, influenced what they observed or attended to, and contributed to the ways in which they interpreted events.

To elucidate the relationship between communicative processes and conflict, Lederach’s (1995) analytical framework, Communication and Conflict Schemes, was adopted. This framework integrates aspects of communication theory built on Austin’s (1962) and Searle’s (1969) seminal work on speech acts, with a constructionist perspective that draws on the work of Schutz (1967), Blumer (1969), and Berger and Luckman (1967). This social constructionist perspective prioritizes the role that culture, as social knowledge and meaning, plays in the creation of conflict. From this perspective, conflict is viewed as a socially constructed phenomenon that is created as people attach meaning to events within a given context and respond accordingly.

Lederach’s (1995) framework presents a way to analyze this process by focusing on three consequential aspects of communication: the expressive scheme, the perceptual scheme, and the interpretive scheme. As Figure 1 illustrates, these schemes take place on two levels: the internal world of individuals, and the communicative behaviors that they display in the social world.

The expressive scheme, guided by “the knowledge base about how expression of intent is to be accomplished” (p. 41), is the means by which intended meaning is conveyed to the external world. The perceptual scheme is “built on social knowledge related to what our senses are accustomed to and trained to watch for, listen to, or intuit” (p. 42). The interpretive scheme, in which meanings are attributed to observations, involves a comparative process “accomplished by locating any given object, event, or word in our bank of knowledge . . . a process of making sense of something by placing it in relationship with other things that are already known” (p. 43).

This framework was used to analyze data generated by the structured component of the interviews. The approach was twofold. In the first instance, the focus was on examining to what extent, if at all, participants expressed, perceived, and interpreted events differently and how this contributed to the creation and emergence of conflict. In this regard, initial analysis was restricted to an understanding of events leading up to actualization of the conflict.4 The second stage of analysis sought to consider how the cycle of expression, perception, and interpretation involved actual conflict behaviors-that is, once the conflict was in the open, how it was expressed, what types of conflict behavior were observed, and how they were interpreted.5 Data derived from this analysis are presented in the conflict case that follows.
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Case Title

A Collaborative Research Project: A Tale of Two Templates

Brief Description of the Case

This case concerns work done on a curriculum renewal research project, particularly with respect to issues of recognition of work done, ownership of intellectual property, and the nature and management of a collaborative research project.


Main: Greg, Kevin, Margaret, and Valerie
Other Perspectives: Chris, Ian, Kate, Lynne, and Richard


Greg and Kevin were the coordinators of the curriculum renewal research project for the first-year English proficiency course (FEP). One of the primary concerns for the FEP research committee was to develop a new template that could be used to guide the writing of instructional materials. This template, in keeping with the longer-term goal of individualizing the curriculum, was designed to add optional activities to current materials and to build in greater opportunities for student choice.

As heads of the committee, Greg and Kevin assumed responsibility for developing and implementing the new template. Their plan to undertake this work had been fomenting, as Kevin said, “since the end of the year before.” However, Margaret and Valerie, two members of the FEP committee, had also thought about ways to build in options based on a new thematic unit that they were developing. As Margaret explained, their interest coincided with “a lot of talk at the beginning of this academic year about the new self-access learning center, and how we can integrate that into our curriculum.” Once the two pairs realized that they were working independently toward the same goal, they met three or four times to discuss and share their ideas about the proposed new template. Following these periodic meetings, one of the FEP coordinators, Greg, presented a progress report in a general meeting, informing other ELC members of the committee’s current work.

In the section that follows, I first consider the events leading up to the actualization of the conflict by focusing on the participants’ understandings of both the periodic meetings held to discuss the template, and Greg’s progress report in the general meeting. I then detail what happened once the conflict came out into the open.
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For the purposes of analysis and discussion, this conflict has been categorized into distinct phases that highlight its progression. Table 1 depicts, in chronological order, the key events.

In presenting the five phases, I provide a relatively informal commentary that accompanies a more structured analysis of the participants’ utterances based on Lederach’s (1995) framework.

Phase 1: Pre-General Meeting

Based on data gathered from in-depth interviews with each of the 4 participants involved, their understandings of the situation prior to the general meeting are summarized below. These understandings are based on the impressions that they formulated as a result of joint meetings held to discuss and compare ideas on the proposed new template. Valerie stated,

As far as I remember, what I thought and I think what Margaret thought was that we’d raised a lot of issues that needed to be talked about in terms of both models. I was under the impression that we were going to go away and think about those issues and get back together sometime in the future to work them out. . . . I got that impression because the models were so different and also Margaret and I had been talking about all the things that still needed to be resolved. . . . So because there were all these issues and because they were very different, I think we left it saying, you know, we must meet again and talk about this some more. . . . And then there was a general meeting.

Margaret similarly pointed out that “they [the templates] were very different in terms of we had moved a lot further than their main template.” She also expressed her delight in having these kinds of meetings, which she had prompted, observing “the very positive thing about that was we had a forum to exchange ideas and I’m always up for that.” From Valerie’s understanding of Margaret’s position, that Margaret herself commented on the differences and stated her interest in open forums indicated that she too was expecting continued collaboration with Kevin and Greg on this matter. Kevin’s recollection of the meetings resembled Margaret’s and Valerie’s in its focus on the difference between the templates. However, he appeared to adopt a more critical view:

I sort of explained my ideas and heard what they were thinking and, you know. . . . I just came away thinking their ideas were sound basically, but they were getting very very bogged down in details. And I just thought their basic model, as they were presenting it, wasn’t workable, given the FEP format.

When I asked Kevin if he had communicated these concerns to Margaret and Valerie, he replied, “I sort of remember raising a few of my concerns about the complexity of the model. I think they nodded and agreed and, you know, it was a fairly loose kind of meeting over a coffee.” Kevin’s view of their model as complex, and his impression that the meetings went fine, would appear to be in line with Greg’s assessment of what went on. Here is how Greg described the initial meeting:

We had a little meeting, we sat down and we told them what we were thinking about and they showed us what they were thinking about. And we, you know, we told them that we thought their thing was too complicated and not really practical in a way we needed to be at this moment in time. . . . It was very congenial. They reacted fine and I think they agreed. It was fine. We kind of thought that we’re all just thinking about the same kind of thing, that we’re all in the same committee.

Even though Greg acknowledged that they were all thinking along the same lines, he and Kevin went ahead and introduced a new template in the general meeting without any subsequent meetings with Margaret and Valerie. Greg and Kevin attributed their actions in part to the positions they held “as heads of the committee,” and the associated “pressure,” as Kevin put it, “to get some results, to justify their position or whatever.” They were also motivated by their realization that both models were far too complex, which resulted in a meeting one weekend over coffee “to bang out what we thought was a much simpler and more realistic plan . . . a very pared down version, that incorporated elements of both [templates].” As Kevin pointed out, this plan “offered a real way forward, to move from just talking about it and all the theory . . . it was a practical step forward, we could actually get down to make some materials.” Consequently, as Greg recounted, “we kind of worked it [the template] up into kind of a slick colorful diagram in the computer and decided at the next general meeting just to hand out copies.”

Phase 2: ELC General Meeting

As mentioned earlier, coordinators of the research project committees usually give a progress report in the general meetings. In this meeting, Greg introduced the new template that some members of FEP had been working on. It is appropriate to first consider how Greg represented his intention in giving this report, and the way in which he believed that he expressed himself.
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This representation concurs with what Kevin noticed in the meeting: Kevin: Observation/Perception

We mentioned some FEP everyday business, then Greg said, “This is the new template for the FEP materials that we’ve been working on,” and he mentioned Valerie and Margaret by name, I’m certain. . . . I can’t remember the exact phrase, I think he said, “‘It’s been something we’ve been working on or Valerie and Margaret have been working on.”‘

It appears that what was intended by Greg during the meeting was interpreted in a very discordant way by Margaret and Valerie. Margaret’s observations and interpretations are as follows:
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Margaret’s interpretations of events reflect her serious concern with issues related to the nature of collaborative research, recognition of work, and ownership of work. Valerie’s understanding of events highlights similar concerns.
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It is clear that both Margaret’s and Valerie’s interpretations of what had transpired in the meeting were similar. This consensus seemed especially important to Margaret, who pointed out, “I felt quite confident that my interpretation was correct because Valerie felt the same way. If it was just me, that’s a different point, I think, because individual interpretations can be very subjective.” This common attitude no doubt had an influence on how Margaret chose to deal with this conflict.

Phase 3: Margaret’s Memo to the ELC

There was a period of apparent calm for a couple of days after the meeting, until the following Monday, when all members of the ELC received in their mailboxes a memo from Margaret. She decided to address the memo to everyone for several reasons. The first stems from her experience of working in the ELC. She felt that there were no clearly articulated procedures in place detailing what to do in the event of a grievance. As she put it, “What am I supposed to do? Who am I supposed to talk to? You know, I think having been here and seen how the communication works, it wasn’t clear. And it wasn’t clear also anything would happen if I just go to one person.” In addition, the issues of recognition of work done and ownership were matters that Margaret believed concerned all members of the ELC:

I thought direct is the best because I needed to know where people stand on this issue of who owns what because I think it’s important. And, you know, it may be subjective but I really think it’s important for not only the FEP committee but for people in general. . . . So I decided to write a memo because I thought it was a broader issue, that this sort of “whose work is what” and “who’s recognized for what” is a broader issue. . . . I think there are a lot of people doing work who are not recognized and I’m not talking about star-spangled banners. . . . I think the make-up of the committees, the members are different, but in essence the dynamics that happen are the same I think. And so I think these sorts of things that come up are very useful for other committees. And so I was hoping that would help other committees as well . . . and it took me a long time to sort of rationalize why this is a good thing to do and for the reason . . . that it might be better for the wider vision of what’s happening in the department.

The actual wording of Margaret’s memo, written much closer to the time of the event, conveys her frustration and disappointment. A copy of Margaret’s memo is reproduced in Figure 2.6
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Valerie, who was still in her first semester at the university, explained that although Margaret wanted to write a memo, she didn’t commit herself to any action. As for her reaction to Margaret’s memo, she commented,

She signed the memo from Margaret and she meant it from Margaret. While I definitely was involved in the situation, that was not my definitive response to it. Had I written a memo, I would have given it to Greg and Kevin first and I would have worded it differently. I thought some of her phrases weren’t phrases that I would have used, but I thought on the whole she did express a lot of the issues that we shared.

The way in which Margaret expressed herself, and the manner in which she did it, shocked Kevin and Greg. Kevin’s impression was that “the tone of the memo was pretty strident, pretty hysterical. . . . We were accused of ‘unethical’ and ‘unprofessional’ practice.” He further exclaimed, “I was pretty flabbergasted, I was totally gob-smacked, if I can use that word. . . . Unethical and unprofessional-there’s not too much left once you’ve been publicly accused of that.”

Greg’s understanding of the essence of the memo was that Margaret was basically “stating that the heads of the committee, and I’m paraphrasing, stole her idea, the idea that she and Valerie had worked on and that we were unprofessional and unethical and that she couldn’t continue to work on the committee for those reasons.” Though the gist of the memo was condemning, Greg appeared more upset with the way Margaret had gone about trying to deal with the conflict than with any actual problem that there may have been:

I was furious, I was very, very angry. Particularly I wasn’t angry that a miscommunication had occurred. I would be perfectly willing to discuss with someone had they said, “Hey you’re out of line, we worked on that too, before you went ahead and said this is what we’ve done you need to clear it with the other people.” It was absolutely the manner in which she dealt with it was the issue . . . the fact that she made these very disparaging, very strong condemnations of us, strong indictments and made them public without ever having tried to consider any other means.

At Greg’s behest, the four met at lunchtime on the same day that Margaret’s memo was distributed. As a result of this meeting, they agreed to issue a second, coauthored memo to all members of the ELC to clarify what had happened. What took place during this meeting is described next.

Phase 4: Follow-up Memo to the ELC

Greg directly approached Margaret after reading her memo and requested that they all meet and talk as soon as possible. Following a fiery start to the meeting, principally between Greg and Margaret, Kevin observed, “Eventually those guys calmed down a bit and so we agreed to issue a joint memo.” Greg in particular expressed concern about being able to “repair such a damaging thing,” noting that “it’s very difficult to un-ring a bell.” He nonetheless demanded a public retraction and, in doing so, provided the impetus for the drafting of a memo that Valerie offered to put together.

During the meeting, a first draft of the memo was written. As Valerie pointed out, “before it was sent to everyone, I sent it to Greg, Kevin and Margaret individually and got their comments on it. After it had the group’s approval, at least ostensibly the group’s approval, it was sent out to the ELC-one day after Margaret’s first memo was distributed.” A copy of this memo is shown in Figure 3.

Both Valerie and Kevin referred to the memo as a clarification, with Kevin elaborating that “the compromise reached was that Greg and I explained that we hadn’t meant to claim sole credit for the model and Margaret admitted that the way she had gone about her complaint was ‘questionable.”‘ Margaret expressed her understanding of the memo in more general terms:

It was basically stating what people were thinking. And I thought it was quite fair, the interpretation, for example, how we interpreted their statements in the general meeting and stuff like that. I think what she [Valerie] wrote was fair. It wasn’t too much “oh we’re so sorry” and it wasn’t too much “Greg and Kevin are in the wrong.” It was really a problem that we have and this is how we were thinking, that’s really what it was about. And there was a bit more on the side that maybe we could have thought about it a bit more-how we responded.
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Margaret seems to conclude that the end result was fair. This view does not, however, seem to be the case for Greg. He mentioned on one occasion his unhappiness with Margaret’s refusal to apologize but said, “I backed off that just for the sake of harmony.” As for the wording of the first draft, he noted,

I thought it was unacceptable because it basically said something to the effect that Greg and Kevin recognize that they were insensitive and did not “whatever,” but there was nothing in there saying that Margaret acted too hastily and should have handled the problem in a different way. And I said I wanted something in there about that. So she included something, it was vague, it didn’t express any regret or anything. It just said something like “it may have been possible to do something in a different way,” you know, something very noncommittal and vague. I wasn’t completely satisfied with it, but I just wanted the issue to be done with.

However, it soon became apparent that the issue was far from over. One member of the ELC thought it was an appropriate time to air some personal concerns related to what Margaret had voiced in her first memo and what the four had written in the follow-up memo.

Phase 5: Lynne’s Memo to the ELC

On the same day that the follow-up memo was distributed to all members of the ELC, Lynne responded to it with her own memo. In it, Lynne essentially articulated concerns about “group dynamics, especially the issue of majority/minority speak.” She referred to the dominance of “White, Anglo men” as heads of the research groups and the impact that this had on how members of the research groups functioned and communicated with each other:

Because my primary research interest is in gendered language, I have acquired a lot of information on this topic. Although gender is not the only topic facing the groups we are in, the fact that the ELC is primarily male and all but one of the research groups are headed by White, Anglo men, the “speak” that tends to be recognized in public discussion and in memos like this is only that of White, Anglo men. As was pointed out in the memo, “surprised and hurt” feelings were coming from Margaret and Valerie and Greg and Kevin expressed “regret” because of a miscommunication. This points to a communication problem that may not necessarily be only a gender issue, but certainly has some of its origin in that fact.

Margaret felt that Lynne’s response vindicated her initial strategy of opening up the conflict to all members of the ELC. In fact, Margaret believed that her own actions were “sort of like preventative conflict management” in that this incident would enable others within the ELC to “recognize possible conflict in their own committees and talk about it before it even happens.” Unlike Lynne, though, she did not seem to focus on the issue of gender in the conflict.

Valerie, meanwhile, seemed to interpret Lynne’s memo as a general statement “about the sending of a memo and the airing of views” rather than anything specific about the FEP committee. She further stated, “I don’t think it [gender] had anything to do with it. I don’t think Greg and Kevin were attacking us as women. I think Margaret reacted so strongly because we had a lot invested in the work that we had done.” Likewise, Kevin’s perspective was that “the whole thing of gender, it doesn’t seem an issue here.”

Greg’s reaction to Lynne’s memo was more fervent: “Ludicrous . . . I thought she had no idea what is happening on our committee. I thought it was idiotic for her to think that she could comment on it. People all thought it was ridiculous.” Greg further speculated that Lynne’s memo ” is all based on gender language and gender issues and everybody knows she’s so hot for that topic . . . that she’s looking for any opportunity to jump on that bandwagon and misconstrue something.” Kate, who was a member of the same research group as Lynne, offered another perspective. She believed that “it [group dynamics] is a healthy issue to address.” Yet, she noted, “it was brought up in a very confrontational and aggressive manner.”


In this section, I first discuss certain assumptions that seem to have contributed to the emergence and development of this conflict and that influenced the strategies that were adopted in trying to resolve it. I then consider the outcomes of this conflict in terms of its negative and positive effects.


This case appears to have largely originated from three divergent assumptions held by those involved in the conflict. The assumptions concerned the overall nature of a collaborative research project with respect to issues of ownership, recognition of work done, and roles and responsibilities of project coordinators.

Margaret, in her memo announcing her resignation from the FEP committee because of “unprofessional working ethics,” referred to different expectations of the research project by noting that her “trust in the collaborative process has been undermined.” She had “expected the collaboration to continue until a finished product was obtained.” As she mentioned in an interview, in this setting, “you can’t be an academic, a researcher in your ivory tower. . . . If you’re in education, you have to be collaborative in some ways unless you’re a linguist doing whatever.” Clearly, in Margaret’s eyes, members of a committee working on an ongoing curriculum renewal project should not be off doing individual pieces of research. It appears as if Margaret fully expected that Greg and Kevin, irrespective of their empowering roles as joint coordinators, would fully collaborate with them on developing the template.

During an interview, Margaret also emphasized the frustration she felt because

it wasn’t ever clear “who owns what” when I came here. No one ever said, “OK, everything you do now is for FEP; you can’t put your name on it; we’re not going to say who did it; it’s just FEP stuff.” Now, now if that was clear I wouldn’t have a problem.

For Margaret, the question of ownership seemed to be an important issue that was not sufficiently clarified in the context of working on a collaborative research project.

Valerie also expressed concerns about working more collaboratively and recognizing people’s efforts appropriately. She seemed to differ, though, in her understanding of the FEP project. Valerie felt that she, as well as Margaret, “were both aware that FEP is something you contribute to. It’s something that clearly is going into an institution and it’s going to be shared, changed, developed by other people.” Valerie did not appear to be concerned about ownership to the degree that Margaret did; rather, as she acknowledged, “that’s the system we work in.” However, she expressed her surprise “in seeing something presented at a meeting that you had worked on, and you didn’t seem to be getting any credit and somebody else did seem to get all the credit.”

The viewpoints of Margaret and Valerie, though differing in emphasis, conveyed a sense of how people may interpret events in a manner contrary to what was originally intended. This observation does not necessarily exonerate Greg from his role in the conflict; rather, it highlights the need to avoid assuming that people who come from very different backgrounds will necessarily understand and concur with each other on what is happening in a particular context.

For Chris, one of the longest serving members of the ELC, the designated context-a research report in a general meeting-evoked certain beliefs about what was happening. His understanding seems to illustrate the taken-for-granted assumptions that some members of the ELC may or may not hold:

It was my impression that the coordinators were certainly not saying this is our idea. . . . This was in the context of a report by FEP of what has been happening, and it was a report that we have adopted this template and we are going to be modifying things.

Richard, also a member of the FEP committee, offered a different perspective:

In the meeting when Greg handed out these colored diagrams, this new template, I didn’t know that anyone had been working on it before and so it definitely did come across as something he had done, so I thought. Without him saying this is something that “somebody else” has done, or “we” have done, maybe he used the word “we,” maybe he didn’t, but you’re not sensitive enough to those kinds of things. . . . I think if Greg stands up and says “we,” most people will be thinking Greg and Kevin.

These contrasting views indicate how people may attend to and interpret events differently, depending on the assumptions that they may make. Whereas Chris appeared to disassociate Greg from the work he presented, Richard seemed to associate the work more directly with Greg and Kevin. Chris attributed much of this conflict to a second assumption: people “not recognizing what a collaborative research project is.” The notion that everyone knows what a collaborative research project is and how it operates within the context of the ELC-without it being clearly articulated-seemed to be an erroneous one. The issue of ownership was particularly important to Margaret, and she felt that it had not been sufficiently clarified. However, others held a common assumption about the irrelevance of ownership when working on a collaborative project. Chris believed that in such a project, “all members of the group share ownership of the intellectual property rights of anything that is there.” Ian referred to this assumption as akin to “common sense,” in that

we develop so many materials that most of the stuff you do is built on the work of other people, so I don’t know how anyone can start copyrighting bits of material anyway. . . . I’m saying they were a little bit overly sensitive and perhaps don’t appreciate the culture of the place they work in, where people do just make a lot of materials and they move on and it’s there for everyone to use.

Greg and Kevin assumed that their colleagues on the FEP committee held similar beliefs about the irrelevance of ownership in a collaborative research project and thus understood their roles as coordinators of the project. Ian commented on this assumption by inferring that “probably Greg, or whoever, never said ‘this is our job, this is what we do’; and if we say this we don’t mean that because, you know, they’ve been working here for so long.” Greg and Kevin both seemed to attribute their actions more to their legitimate roles as joint coordinators than their roles as collaborative colleagues. Greg noted, “because we are the heads of the committee, and it’s not a completely democratic committee anymore, I think we are empowered to stand up and give a progress report.” Kevin’s identity as a joint coordinator of the project also seemed important to him. He acknowledged that “a little bit of pressure as head of FEP” was what motivated him to pare down the template with Greg so that they could move forward in a practical way and therefore “show whoever that things were moving along.” It should be noted that Greg and Kevin had worked on the FEP for several years and had invested enormous time and effort into it; yet, they still seemed to see their role as “to advance the plan that is in place.”
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It seems clear that the varying assumptions held about the nature of collaborative research contributed to the emergence of this conflict. These assumptions are summarized in Table 2.

The degree to which individuals or groups within the ELC hold particular assumptions will be tempered not only by their experiences prior to coming to the ELC but also by their experiences of working within this particular organization.

In making decisions, Greg and Kevin seemed to draw on their understanding of how things had progressed over the years, a sense of what was needed to develop the project, and their experience in their official roles. It is interesting that organizational changes introduced earlier in the year had formalized project coordinator positions, providing more compensation and greater legitimacy. Greg noted how these changes had affected the work dynamics:

Because we went from this sort of de facto leadership and democratic environment to a more specified power structure . . . because I was kind of used to being able to do whatever I wanted in terms of the project, I guess I wasn’t as inclusive enough as I could have been. . . . I felt less bothered to tell everybody what I was doing because in the past I never felt like anybody really wanted to know or didn’t really care.

Greg’s experience of informally coordinating the project the past few years with little input from his colleagues seemed to have resulted in a tendency to be less collaborative and more independent. Kevin was also affected by this experience, but to a lesser degree.


Margaret’s experience of working in the ELC and on the FEP committee for the previous year and a half also influenced her behavior, particularly the strategy she chose in dealing with this conflict. As detailed earlier, Margaret felt that there were no clearly articulated procedures in place about how to address concerns. To her, recognition of work, especially “who owns what,” was a major concern that necessitated more than “just going to a place, shutting the door, sitting on a sofa, explaining what happened, leaving, and that’s it.” Valerie concurred that “she’s [Margaret] worked here longer than I have and she has a year’s more history with Greg and Kevin . . . and I suspect that Margaret, well I know, that she felt sometimes that her comments weren’t taken on board in the past.” This observation is useful in interpreting Margaret’s response in a cumulative light, which Valerie believed to be the “difference in the act and the medium of complaint.”

Although Valerie appreciated Margaret’s position, she and the others involved in this conflict appeared to hold vastly different assumptions about the manner in which it should be resolved. Valerie felt, in this instance, that “we should have directly notified them [Greg and Kevin]” and waited for their response. She added, “If we’re not satisfied with that, then we are going to moan to the whole of the ELC.” Kevin stated, “It’s just common sense that if you have a grievance, go and see the person you’re aggrieved with.” Greg concurred: “All they have to do is knock on my door”; if anyone had a problem with him, he was “willing to meet them more than halfway.” Lynne, however, advocated addressing communication and group dynamic problems caused by “White, Anglo men” who were heads “of all but one of the research groups.”

These varied perspectives held by the main protagonists are important to examine. First, they exemplify that there is very little agreement on how to go about solving a problem. Second, they provide an insight into the strategies that people adopt in dealing not only with the initial stage of a conflict but also with the various stages of its escalation. For example, Margaret’s choice to write a public memo announcing her resignation from the committee to protest unprofessional work ethics before considering any other options reflects a competitive stance. Although there were no clearly articulated procedures in place informing her of available recourse, she showed scant regard for the reputation of two colleagues within the ELC. Kevin noted this lack of concern: “It seemed as if she wanted to expose us for the rotters that we were. And she wanted everyone to know; she wasn’t bothered what that did to our relationships or what that did to our standing in the ELC.”

There were mixed reactions to Margaret’s memo from members of the ELC not directly involved in this conflict. Lynne, in her memo to all members of the ELC, supported Margaret’s strategy. Richard’s reaction to Margaret’s memo, however, was one of surprise; he respected Margaret but found her response “quite ill-tempered, too strong, and to everyone!” He alluded to the distinction previously mentioned about the difference between the original act and the mode of complaint. As he put it,

Greg started it, I suppose. But no way did he deserve that sort of reaction. And whether he started it by being just sort of blase about acknowledging people’s work or whether he wanted to steal Margaret’s ideas-I don’t think in any way he wanted to steal Margaret’s ideas-he didn’t deserve that.

When the four involved in this conflict met and agreed to draft a second memo clarifying what had happened, Margaret was still quite adamant that what she had done was correct on the grounds that she “felt everybody had a right to know.” Greg, despite his dissatisfaction with the “noncommittal and vague” wording in the memo, reluctantly accepted Margaret’s “refusal to apologize,” declaring that he wanted the matter to be over with.

Whereas Margaret was still adopting a primarily competitive style in which she continued to assert her own position, Greg adopted a more compromising manner. Through this choice, Greg provided the impetus to move toward some sort of reconciliation. Even though the conflict eventually subsided, it had significant and lingering effects of both a negative and positive nature.


Although Valerie affirmed that this conflict had not affected her productivity or her ability to work with certain people, she did believe that a stressful situation like this “changes the way you relate to each other”; she stated that even if matters improve, “there can be no going back to where you were before.”

Greg concurred and then mentioned two other negative consequences of this conflict: a decrease in his motivation to do things on the project and a feeling that this incident had set a bad precedent. He feared that the strategy taken by Margaret would encourage “the idea that if you have a problem you publicize it, as opposed to knocking on someone’s door and saying, ‘Hey, listen, I’m irritated by what you did.”‘ In fact, Greg stated that Margaret’s memo-informing all ELC members of the conflict-was the first time that someone had used this kind of strategy. Lynne, as discussed earlier, had followed suit to show her support for Margaret and, at the same time, aired some of her own concerns. Kevin claimed that Margaret’s memo “really sort of marked the start of the season of conflict, if you like.” Here he seems to be referring to several other conflicts in which people had made public allegations against colleagues without adhering to “any due process beforehand,” such as “going to see the person you’re aggrieved with.”


Although Margaret did not mention any negative outcomes of this conflict, she did highlight certain positive results. She was pleased with how the weekly project committee meetings changed, saying that “the way Greg conducts them is quite different. It’s more discussion oriented; it’s not one person, and the language has changed; the framework of the meetings has changed.” Valerie affirmed that “there are good things happening. I think people are trying to communicate more and they’re more aware of being open and working forward as a group.”

In fact, Greg felt that this conflict had taught him “how to deal with people and make sure they are included and feel validated. And that’s a big thing and that’s something I didn’t consider before.” Richard, a member of the FEP committee not involved in this conflict, confirmed this positive outcome by observing that “Greg has become a bit more of a considerate manager.” In addition, Greg seemed to have gained the understanding that Margaret and Valerie “did have a lot invested in that idea, even if it wasn’t their idea from the beginning.” He also admitted to the “rashness” of what he and Kevin did and that they “shouldn’t have represented it as the state of that idea without asking them [Margaret and Valerie] first if they agreed.” These realizations led him to conjecture that “maybe it [the conflict] had to happen.”

Ian offered another important perspective on this conflict. He attributed the conflict to the rapid expansion of the ELC: “It’s grown so much-assumptions and things-people just miss them because they’re new.” He pointed out that as the number of staff increases, there is a greater need to articulate some assumed understandings. Such clarification would enable members of the ELC who do not share these same assumptions to more fully appreciate “the culture of the place they work in.”


In this article, I have presented an example of a conflict in an educational workplace setting. Although it is a unique conflict within a specific setting, the analysis reveals certain contributing factors that may apply to other similarly situated conflicts. First, misunderstandings arose because of certain assumptions about a shared common reality, and unconscious expectations related to one’s own cultural group or identity (Kimmel, 2000). Second, these assumptions played significant roles in contributing to both the emergence of the conflict and its escalation. Third, aspects of communication-expression, perception, and interpretation-based on erroneous assumptions of shared cultural knowledge resulted in intended meanings being missed or misconstrued because that meaning lay outside the realm of shared knowledge.

Institutions like the ELC that endorse an underlying ideology of cultural pluralism need to focus attention on facilitating constructive orientations to conflict management. This approach requires formalizing a system of conflict management within an organization. This system must first attend to the requisite knowledge base and skills of individuals, especially given that “ignorance of conflicting interests and values” and “skills deficits” are among the root causes of conflict (Slaikeu & Hasson, 1998,p. 6). Hence, the focus should be on (1) increasing people’s awareness of the diversity of interests, values, and accompanying identities that their colleagues may hold in various contexts within the workplace setting, and (2) equipping individuals with the skills necessary to manage and even resolve conflict.7

In addition to addressing the needs of individuals, organizations have a responsibility to institutionalize practices conducive to the constructive management of conflict. Organizations that are effective in encouraging people to pursue their differences in a cooperative manner typically (1) acknowledge that conflict is inevitable and encourage individuals to voice concerns early; (2) encourage resolution of the conflict at the lowest level; (3) integrate a collaborative approach to problem-solving into the organization; and (4) provide multiple options for addressing problems and multiple access points (Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolutions, 2000, pp. 2-5).

The provision of a range of viable options for individuals to choose from in dealing with conflict is one way of encouraging more cooperative processes, particularly among people from different backgrounds. By articulating a range of strategies, there may well be less temptation to assume that there are universal solutions-for example, directly confronting someone in person- that can be applied to every situation (Cohen, 1993). Furthermore, by specifying and implementing various options that individuals have recourse to, it is hoped that the need for individuals to choose their own strategies for dealing with conflicts may be reduced. These prescribed options are of particular importance given that, as shown in the conflict presented in this article, individual initiatives can result in merely escalating the conflict.

Given the range of intercultural settings in our new millennium and the reality that the majority of people in such settings-like those in the ELC- have had little or no training in constructively managing conflict, the potential for conflict to contribute to the growth of individuals and groups has not been properly understood. However, it is possible to mitigate the tendency of individuals to assume that people, despite having different backgrounds, will nonetheless understand and concur with each other on what is happening in a particular context. It is also possible to increase awareness that the mere intelligibility of spoken or written language does not necessarily lead to effective communication. Furthermore, it is possible to equip people with the requisite knowledge and skills for becoming more mindful in dealing with others and to provide them with institutional support for guiding and encouraging cooperative work. The more conversant we, our colleagues, our students, and our organizations are with the practices involved in the field of conflict management, the more likely we are to realize more positive outcomes whenever conflict arises.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 12, 2006, p. 2523-2549
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12852, Date Accessed: 12/9/2008 11:14:53 AM

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About the Author * Michael Torpey
Kanda University of International Studies, Japan
E-mail Author
MICHAEL TORPEY has lived and worked in Australia, Germany, Papua New Guinea, and Japan. He is currently an associate professor at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan, where he is the assistant director of the English Language Institute. He received his doctorate in education (specializing in conflict resolution) from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 2003. His interests range from social organizational psychology to language education. Recent works include “English Language Teachers Abroad: The Relationship Between Culture and Conflict -A Social Constructionist Perspective” (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2003) and “From the Classroom to the Self-Access Centre: A Chronicle of Learner-Centered Curriculum Development” (The Language Teacher, 2004).