Principal Helpline: How Do I Get My Main Office Staff to Get Along?

Remember you’re their manager, not their mom or dad.

People who work together every day under the stress of a school environment are bound to encounter tension at one time or another. If you’re wondering how to manage any office staff conflict, read on.

Suzanne Tingley, School Leaders Now’s weekly contributor, answers questions she finds in the field and on our Facebook group Principal Life. Suzanne Tingley has been a middle/high school teacher, department chair, principal, and superintendent.

Question

My office staff consists of four full-time people who just can’t seem to get along. They complain about one another, they sometimes don’t speak to one another, and they refuse to help one another out on projects. I really don’t want to get involved in this situation, but I really think the principal’s job is tough enough without all this added drama. How can I reduce office staff tension?

Answer

This is such a difficult situation because the main office represents the school itself as well as you as principal. It’s the first point of contact for parents and visitors and the hub of the school for faculty, staff, and students. You want your office to present a warm and professional image, but it’s hard to do that if people don’t work together cooperatively.

I was lucky enough to work with outstanding office professionals for most of my career. They were confidential, respectful, and helpful to everyone. They liked what they did, were good at it, and knew what I needed even before I did. Because they understood the school and the community better than I did at first, they provided essential support as I learned the job. There’s no question that a good office staff makes the principal’s work easier and, frankly, a lot more fun.

But I did have one memorable experience in my career like the one you’ve described. I started a job as principal in a new district with an office staff that had been together for some time before I arrived. Their dislike for one another soon became apparent and seemed well-established. So were their office practices, which they were reluctant to change.

I didn’t want to become involved in their personal issues and did everything I could to avoid taking sides. You might call it the “head in the sand” approach. But when their dislike for one another spilled over into the way they dealt with staff, kids, and parents, I had to step in. Teachers were beginning to come to me to ask for office supplies and make other simple requests because they didn’t want to deal with the secretaries. I began to get complaints from parents that a secretary was rude to them on the phone. And then I overheard one of them tell a student who had been sent to the office to stop crying because it was her own fault she was here.

That was it for me. This was not the school culture I wanted to cultivate.

I am not a person who likes confrontation, but I called an office meeting at the end of the day. I told the office staff that I couldn’t make them like one another, but I would not tolerate rudeness to staff, parents, kids, or even one another. Then, I cited examples of things I had heard that day and on other days. Finally, I told them it had to stop. It was a pretty short meeting.

It was frosty in the office for a few days afterward, but the conflict and tension did ease up some. I also got a lucky break. One of the office staff resigned shortly afterward, which let me hire a positive, personable individual to take her place. Surprisingly, that one move helped change the structure and attitudes in my office.

I’m sure you’ve tried hard not to get involved in office squabbles, but once they become obvious to the outside world and begin to affect the work, you have no choice but to intervene. The main office needs to function professionally. Refusing to tolerate negative behavior is better for everyone.

Schools need to be good places for both kids and adults.

Suzanne Tingley

Posted by Suzanne Tingley

Suzanne Tingley has been a middle/high school teacher, department chair, principal, and superintendent. She taught graduate classes in education administration for the State University of New York. She developed a series of education videos and has been a Scholastic Administrator blogger.