How Not-For-Profit Organisations Can Manage Conflict in the Workplace

By Andrew Heaton

(image via Employee Relations Consultants)

Across all sectors of the Australian economy, conflict is an occasional reality within workplaces.

Charities and not-for-profit organisations are no exception, and disagreements which arise out of an NGO environment could do so out of a number of situations.

The cost cannot be understated. Whilst data about the impact of conflict within the workplace is sparse, a publication from Medibank Private in 2008 suggested that such conflict was a driver of workplace stress, which it said cost the economy $14.81 billion and employers an average of 3.2 days lost per worker each year.

In light of this, it is important to look at why conflict arises and strategies which can be employed to prevent it from happening or manage it when it does happen.

Catherine Gillespie, Managing Director of conflict management training firm Workplace Conflict Resolution, says one area where breakdown can occur is where non-managerial staff feel they are either not consulted about change or not adequately listened to in cases where they are consulted.

At a deeper level, Gillespie says a dichotomy can arise within not-for-profit situations which sees the focus of non-managerial employees revolve primarily around operations and client groups but that of managerial workers focus more closely upon ‘business’ aspects of running the organisation. Where this happens, she says situations can arise whereby the two groups adopt differing perspectives and are unable to appreciate reasoning behind decisions which are being made by the other group.

More broadly, Gillespie says that many people are ingrained with a desire for a sense of stability. When this is threatened, survival instincts can lead to the adoption of negative mindsets and attitudes of suspicion – a situation she says can form the start of the conflict cycle.

Finally, Gillespie says many people unwittingly operate under a set of preconceived ideas or assumptions, and can feel threatened or become suspicious when others do not respond to given situations in the way we expect.

Martin Probst, founder of business coaching and leadership development company  PROfound Coaching, offers a slightly different perspective. Much of the conflict which we see in our workplaces, he says, arises out of a breakdown in understanding and communication.

One situation in which this can occur is where the communication itself is not clear. In a recent case, Probst said a client had expressed frustration about directions which she had given not being followed. Upon further questioning, Probst uncovered that the instruction in question had been given in an indirect and inferential manner. Upon subsequently trying a clearer and more direct approach, the client discovered that she was more easily understood and that her directions started being carried out more consistently.

Another situation of communication breakdown arises where the person receiving the communication is experiencing negative emotions such as fear or lack of value within the workplace. This, Probst said, can lead to negative interpretations about things being said beyond that which were intended by the speaker.

Probst also agrees with Gillespie’s comments about survival instincts and what he refers to as fear-driven responses, which he says can arise during periods of change or where there is a worry about being judged. These, he said, can manifest themselves not only in terms of workers becoming reluctant to ask questions or raise concerns but also in terms of a shift and focus away from larger organisational and team goals and toward concerns surrounding personal survival, wellbeing and agendas.

In addition, he says a further driver of conflict occurs where people feel their contribution is not being adequately recognised and valued. This, he said, can underlie some of the negative interpretations in conversations referred to above.

In terms of wrong ways to prevent and manage conflict, Probst says insufficient attention is often afforded to the profiles of candidates from a personality and temperament perspective and the extent to which character traits displayed are a suitable match for the organisation and the role during hiring decisions. This, he says, can result in candidates who value structure and predictability being placed into roles which by their nature involve adaptability and change or candidates who naturally enjoy leadership and initiative being placed in roles where they have limited decision making authority or room to grow and expand.

When managing existing conflict, Probst says one trap revolves around efforts to ‘solve’ problems for others. Where this happens, he says there be a tendency for the helper’s resolution to reflect their own values, beliefs and perspectives rather than what may be suitable in the case of the person who is experiencing the problem. There is also a danger that the helper, though well intentioned, could wind up being dragged into the problem and becoming part of the problem.

Furthermore, Probst says there can be a tendency on the part of the parties to adopt an excessive focus on the problem itself rather than on the solution. This can drive the parties toward blame, distrust, acrimony and hostility and away from methods through which the problem could be resolved, he said.

Gillespie, meanwhile, says problems can arise where those who are in a position to help resolve the problem adopt pre-conceived notions about individual parties involved. Where this happens, she says those assisting tend to act upon these notions and in fact adopt a punitive approach which in turn can provoke survival type defensive responses on the part of the party in question.

Most importantly, both Gillespie and Probst say one of the most common mistakes is to ignore the problem and to avoid confronting the situation. Where this happens, they say, both the problem itself and the underlying issues which created it remain unresolved.

In terms of what should be done, Probst said open communication was imperative, and that it was important when going through change to keep those who were involved in the change updated about what is happening. It was also important for workplaces to teach and promote awareness of critical workplace skills in areas such as people management, effective communications and conflict resolution.

It was also important for people to be clear about what they want from the outcome of the situation. Often times, by focusing on desired outcomes, Probst says people can find they in fact had more common ground. This discovery, he said, can help the parties in question to break down barriers and build mutual trust and respect.

Finally, Probst said it was important to keep an open mind and to look for mutually beneficial outcomes.

Gillespie says it is imperative to develop a culture of professional rapport in which all team members feel comfortable in raising issues and dealing with problems in a constructive manner. Professional training about some of the different ways in which people approach decision making would help people to better understand and appreciate why their colleagues might adopt a different approach to given situations compared with what they themselves would adopt, Gillespie said. Training would also help in terms of effective ways to implement change management processes and performance management processes, she said.

As in all employment environments, conflict arises occasionally in charities and not-for-profit workplace.

By adopting some critical measures, charities and NGOs can learn to handle this effectively when it arises.

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