Some nonprofit organizations experience frequent and, sometimes, debilitating conflict. Although individual disputes may draw a lot of attention, the overall pattern of conflict rarely does. So over the years, a culture of conflict and melodrama emerges. The characters and plot-lines involved may change, but the persistence of some kind of drama is a constant.
A few years ago, I was asked by the artistic director of a performing arts company to facilitate dialogue between two company members who had been in conflict with each other for some time. After talking with the organization’s top leaders, it became clear that there always seemed to be some conflict erupting somewhere in the nonprofit. The organization’s leaders agreed that we would work together to both support a resolution of the current dispute and explore why it was that conflict continuously emerged.
This nonprofit made a lot of progress because everyone was willing to explore conflict at both the interpersonal and organizational levels:
- Facilitated sessions helped the two people in the immediate dispute move to greater understanding and acceptance (if not full agreement).
- Discussions with leadership and retreats with all staff supported the group in considering how they collectively tolerated ongoing conflict, identified some of the causes of the disputes (such as trying to impress the artistic director and policies that were not clear) and developed some shared expectations for dealing with disagreements.
In the long run, this work set the stage for revamping the organization’s informal decision making and helping the organization move toward a more sustainable structure.
Look Beyond the Individual
When someone repeatedly leaves meetings in a huff and slams their office door, it’s tempting to simply blame the individual. At the same time, though, I wonder how the individual is supervised and why all staff at any level tolerate the behavior (everyone in a drama plays a role).
And when there is a pattern of individuals “blowing up” and leaving the organization, I wonder both about the individual circumstances but also about the organizational culture that may (perhaps unintentionally) discourage disagreement, debate and expressing one’s concerns constructively—leaving people with the perception that the only way to be heard is through an explosion.
Looking at the organizational–or systems–level allows one to see if incidents are isolated or part of a recurring pattern. The patterns are difficult to see if you’re focusing solely on the day-to-day tasks, especially if you are a direct or secondary participant in a conflict.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz calls being able to take a systems view going to the balcony, from where one can see the dance as it unfolds. Stepping back and gaining an overview is a vital, and often overlooked, skill for effective leadership. Conflict can potentially provide valuable information about the organization as a whole and individuals’ concerns if leaders attend to it.
Here are some thoughts if you want to explore–and respond to–conflict from a systems perspective:
Resist the temptations of denial and blame.
While conflict ebbs and flows, if it’s part of the organizational culture, it doesn’t go away on its own—so denial just puts off the inevitable. And focusing blame on one or two individuals prevents seeing whole systems dynamics at work.
Develop expectations and foster skill development.
Make conflict and its resolution part of the ongoing organizational conversation. Because many harbor fear and uncertainty, offer training and coaching to develop skills and confidence.
Understand people’s concerns.
Get to know what’s on people’s minds, perhaps through an organizational climate assessment. This may help get at root causes of conflict.
Name and address the elephants in the room.
If there is a pattern of conflict, but nobody talks about it–openly–then it may be necessary to address it explicitly. A neutral facilitator can often be helpful with this.
And keep in mind, though it may be difficult, that conflict can be constructive, and lead to greater understanding and creativity in the long run---if it is addressed rather than ignored.
Learn More About Difficult Conversations
A few resources that I’ve found helpful are:
- Ryan, K. D., & Oestreich, D. K. (1993). Driving Fear Out of the Workplace: How to Overcome the Invisible Barriers to Quality, Productivity, and Innovation. Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.
- Stone, D. (2000). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York N.Y.: Penguin Books.
- Weeks, D. (1994). The Eight Essential Steps to Conflict Resolution. Tarcher.
Do you have lessons learned and tips to share for preventing and resolving conflict?