Conflict is a normal part of human relationships, and it is certainly a feature of working in grassroots community organizations. In the work that COCo does to support organizations through conflict, we see that some organizations have the tools and practices in places to deal with conflict as they arise, and for these organizations, conflict makes them stronger. In groups like these, conflict results in stronger relationships, deeper trust, and more nuanced, adaptable policies and services. In nonprofits or charities without these tools, conflict can instead become destructive, sucking up time, resources, and moving us away from the work we need to be doing.
Here are 3 practices used by organizations with good conflict cultures.
Deal with conflict as soon as it comes up
Often, the organizations I speak with are experiencing destructive conflict because no one addressed the conflict early on. In many of these stories, seemingly small disputes between volunteers or staff were ignored for so long that they soured team relationships, people left their jobs, and the organizations were hit with legal complaints. When we ignore conflict, it doesn’t go away– it grows, and small fires turn into big ones.
Dealing with conflict proactively doesn’t mean telling the parties to ‘get over it’, or ‘move on’. Rather, it means asking to hear people’s concerns and taking them seriously from the get-go. If people feel heard– even if they don’t “get their way”– trust will be built in the organization, rather than broken.
Make the problem bigger first
Making the problem bigger might not sound like good advice, but I believe in it! Often, what people say the conflict is about is only one piece of a bigger picture. It might be the most recent incident, or the last straw, or the most sympathy-inducing part of the overall conflict. Sometimes, what people tell you the conflict is about seems absurd. Usually, this is because their first answer is not actually what the conflict is about. When we ask more questions, we start to understand that the conflict is not “Jenny stole my stapler”, but rather “Jenny treats me like her secretary when I am her peer”. On its face, this might seem more overwhelming of a problem to solve than the stapler, but if you only solve the stapler problem, the conflict will arise over and over again.
Talk with your team about conflict before it happens
Investing in conflict prevention is much, much cheaper than resolving serious conflicts later. Taking 30-60 minutes with your team to fill out personal conflict style questionnaires, and share and discuss your results together. Or, talk through some likely scenarios that might occur at your nonprofit and how your team could address them. You can also hire facilitators, mediators (including us!) to do longer, more intensive training with your group. Other organizations encourage their managers to get some training in conflict mediation and conflict support. Making conflict prevention a regular part of your organization’s culture, for board and staff, goes a very long way in supporting the health of your nonprofit in the long term. The only warning? Don’t try to schedule a conflict training as a way to deal with active conflicts themselves– it will just throw fuel on the fire if people are already escalated and angry.