Resolving Conflict in Your Organization
Table of Contents
Conflict is a normal and healthy part of our lives, when properly managed. But when differences of opinion are not constructively handled, they can escalate into huge problems and heated arguments around boardroom tables.
Conflict is an active disagreement or friction between people with opposing opinions or principles. It results from actual or perceived differences.
Disagreements often happen within organizations and boards. In fact, you probably have all kinds of examples from your own experience. What typically happens is that a minor disagreement or opposing opinion is left unchecked and allowed to fester into a major conflict. Emotions heighten, stress levels rise, board members take sides, and the disagreement grows into something much more difficult to resolve.
"Although there may be no immediate financial risk, the drain on support and on people's time may be expensive and the public image of the [volunteer] organization may be damaged. This can adversely affect fund-raising potential Disputes can prove costly in terms of: time delays, member and staff time, damaging publicity, charges of breach of trust, relationships and morale, stress, and hampering the work of an organization, among others." Volunteer Now
This factsheet identifies how conflict happens, provides strategies for dealing with disagreements, and suggests ways of avoiding conflict all together.
Reflect: Think of a disagreement or conflict that you experienced on your board or committee. What was it about? How was it handled? Was it resolved? What would you do differently next time?
Turns out, we all need conflict in our lives. It is an oportunity for us to test limits and set new boundaries. Controversial topics and issues should inspire constructive dialogue, enabling working groups to grow and evolve to higher levels of understanding and commitment. At some time, your organization will probably have to address a fiery topic with people polarized on both sides of the debate. But where would your group be if you avoided talking about it? Disagreements and opposing viewspoints bring forward new ideas and options for conducting business.
Successful conflict resolution builds trust and strengthens the board's interpersonal relationships. "If we can get through this, we can survive anything!"
There is bound to be lively debate, and even disagreements at times, when a group of people with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, values and education are brought together around a common interest. Volunteers tend to be passionate about their work and struggle at times to balance their personal values with the actions required to fulfill the organization's mission.
Disagreement, dispute or conflict occurs between two opposing parties, such as:
Most disagreements stem from three major sources:
Peter is passionate about implementing a new community garden program and feels the board should implement his idea. Khursheed refuses to support it because she thinks the board's time would be better spent on supporting the Buy Local Food Campaign. Neither are budging on their position and other board members are starting to feel uncomfortable about the mounting tension.
In Scenario 1 above, two board members (Peter and Khursheed) are in opposition, based on their personal perceptions, values and beliefs about the best way to spend the Board's resources.
Sammi, the Executive Director, spoke to the media about the unsuccessful fundraising initiative which might mean financial ruin for the organization. His actions confused board members who didn't know he was doing this. Now everyone is scrambling to undo the damage created by this unflattering news story and they are not speaking to Sammi! Sammi thought he was doing the board a favour by bringing public attention to the problem and didn't think he needed their permission to speak to the newspaper.
In Scenario 2, board members are in opposition with the Executive Director. This conflict stems from confusion over organizational roles and responsibilities.
"Let's spend some of the grant money on recognition of our volunteers. They are an essential part of running the healthy living fair," said Elaine. "No way!" said Asad. "That money is supposed to go right back into the fair exhibits."
"I don't see why we couldn't do both," suggested Elaine.
"I won't stand for it!" said Asad. "Who could go along with that?"
The other board members were squirming in their seats because it was evident that Asad was looking to see who sided with him.
Reflect: Look at Scenario 3. Who is in conflict? What are the sources of the conflict?
VitalSmarts Research found that "most people do everything wrong in the first hazardous half-minute" of a disagreement, such as becoming combative or lashing out, oversimplifying the problem, being disrespectful, shutting down, accusing or taking offense, losing sight of the goal, or making assumptions about another person's intentions.
Generally, people in conflict will choose one of five typical responses and start down that path in the first 30 seconds. While all are valid choices, appropriate use depends on choosing the right response for the situation at hand. For example, it is not constructive to use "Avoid" or "Compete" in every situation.
Five Personal Responses to Conflict
Based on the work of Thomas Kilmann
Reflect: Looking at these five responses, which ones do you tend to rely on? Have they served you well or have you encountered problems using them? Is there a response that you wish you were more skilled at using?
"Don't open your mouth until you've opened your mind." David Maxfield
Step back and get perspective. Plan your approach, rather than reacting to instincts. Try these three steps:
"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." Stephen Covey
"Mokita, is a Papua New Guinea expression which means 'that which everyone knows and no one speaks of'." Dana Wilke
There is a movement toward candid conversation or the Mokita Approach. It is a direct and honest approach for dealing head on with issues before they become serious conflicts. Instead of attacking each other, board members look for ways to attack the problem together by joint problem solving.
The first part of this is separating the problem, from the person. It means switching your focus from taking a stand or position (like I'm right and you're wrong), to identifying each other's interests. Once you do this, together you can invent options for mutual gain.
The second part is understanding your emotions as well as those of the other person. Emotional awareness is central to resolving conflict. It means taking a genuine interest in the other person and their concerns.
Reflect: So how do you handle the elephant in the boardroom?
Once you have your emotions in check, and you've opened up dialogue with the other person, you are ready to move into a joint problem solving process to resolve the conflict. This involves five key steps.
Resolving conflicts through joint problem solving involves a lot of talking! Here are some tips so you can make the most of your dialogue.
Reflect: Think of a time when you had an interpersonal conflict with another board member. What did you say or do? Did your approach work? If you could rewind time, what would you do or say differently for a better outcome?
Many committees and boards, especially those that have been established for some time, are prepared for conflict and have organizational structures in place. Such things as:
Be prepared for interpersonal conflict. Use the tips and techniques in this factsheet to plan an approach that you would like to try the next time a disagreement arises. For example, the next time I experience interpersonal conflict, I will do more of this: __________, and less of this: __________. Like any skill, your ability to resolve conflict will improve with practice!
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