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How to manage conflict in the workplace?

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by Impactpool

Although several professionals view conflict in the workplace as an indication of engaged employees or open-mindedness, the reality is that often, conflict isn't subtle. Unfortunately, conflict in the workplace, including non-profits, can often be approached with hostility making it unpleasant for many. Apart from confrontational conflict being a nightmare, employees often shy away from managing conflict, fearing additional anxiety and victimization.


That said, this article discusses the different faces of conflict in the workplace and provides you with advice on how to deal with conflict. Though curated for non-profits, the conflict types and advice can be applied to any industry.

Identifying toxic relationships in the non-profit workplace 

Disagreements between colleagues aren't unusual, as often, differences of opinion can result from problem-solving. However, when conflict is approached with hostility and is intentionally instigated to weigh down a co-worker, for example ignoring their contributions, or bullying a co-worker, it can lead to mental and physical problems for the victim. When left unaddressed, conflict at the workplace can lead to deeper problems, like a decline in workplace morale or even resignation. Hence, it is crucial to tackle the issue before it gets in the way of performing your duties. The first line of defense in managing confrontational conflict is knowing how to identify it. Below are the various types of conflict that you may endure while working at a non-profit. 

Conflict associated with Leadership 

With confrontation often associated with power imbalances, it is not surprising that conflict often occurs in top-down directions. An employee with greater power over another employee might extend their dominance in ways that lead to withdrawal or defeat from the employee at the receiving end. 

For example, a Fundraising Manager may tend to overload the organization's Fundraising Assistant with piles of work and expect their availability even after hours. They criticize the employee when they express the slightest bit of burnout. The Fundraising Assistant becomes consumed with resentment toward the Fundraising Manager sparking conflict.

On the other hand, conflict may not always be in the top-down direction. Leaders can receive confrontational behavior from deliberately insubordinate workers. There could be a Marketing Assistant who refuses to keep a non-profits Administrator in the loop on the progress of marketing campaigns. The Marketing Assistant making obtaining work from them very difficult is a sign of an employee instigating an environment that can lead to conflict. 

Conflicts associated with Interdependency

With non-profits being democratic and process-driven, heavy consensus amongst team members and teamwork across departments is required. While this can often be pleasant in terms of having employees feel included in workplace processes, it can also lead to conflict associated with interdependency. For example, the Board of Directors is in the process of deciding which marketing event to choose. However, they are still waiting for the Director of Finance to reveal whether the budget allows them to go ahead with the event, but he seems sluggish. A team member's reluctance to contribute to a task can lead to conflict associated with interdependency. 

Conflict based on working styles

Although two individuals can have similar skills, or obtain similar education for the same role, everyone has their style of doing work. Having a unique way of doing work can bring diversity to the workplace, but can also lead to conflict when employees don't agree with each other. For example, two team leaders are put together to manage one team of campaign staff. While one team leader thinks micromanaging the team will lead to results, the other team leader prefers to let staff members do their thing and trust that they will produce results. Should the two team leaders fail to find consensus on their differing approaches to management, conflict may hinder the overall results. 

Conflicts in personality 

Conflict associated with personality arises when co-workers do not quarrel over a particular issue or incident. Instead, their conflict stems from incompatible personalities or biases concerning each other's way of living, approach to things, and perception of their character. For example, A team leader lashes out at an employee for reporting late to work, referring to them as lazy and uncommitted. The employee believes the team leader is out to get them considering they have a reasonable excuse for being late. If left unaddressed, the employee who thinks their team leader is out to get them will harbor resentment. 

Conflict during negotiation

Although non-profits tend to shy away from the term negotiation, negotiation skill is integral to running a non-profit. Negotiation is crucial when convincing donors to fund non-profit initiatives, decide on partnerships, and determine a way forward regarding fundraising. That said, conflict can arise during negotiation processes when team members share differences in goals. For example, two Executive Directors may disagree over whether to partner with a corporate or fellow non-profit for a new initiative. With both parties attaching emotions to their views, the negotiation process on which is the better option may be negatively affected. 

How to manage conflict with a colleague in the non-profit workplace? 

Understanding how conflict can arise in the workplace is the first step to being able to manage conflict should you encounter it. However, working effectively around confrontational behavior, at best, solving conflict is the best way to mitigate the negative effects of conflict. When seeking resolutions to conflicts, the following strategies take all parties into account. 

Prioritize prevention 

Workplaces that promote collaboration and respectful communication and that clearly define responsibilities tend to have reduced amounts of conflict. That said, while conflict prevention is more effective when it comes from the top down, i.e. Employers and Managers, Lower level employees also play an integral part in preventing workplace conflict. Workers can promote positivity and collaboration by attentively listening to co-workers and their contributions. Furthermore, refraining from malicious criticism and bullying can help prevent altercations with colleagues. 

Contemplate your biases

With people tending to connect new ideas and people with past experiences, it is not uncommon for biases to creep in in the workplace. However, biases can often be unfactual, leading to poor judgment and distortion in decision-making. Identifying your biases, such as judging a co-worker who comes in late as lazy and unmotivated, will help you avoid criticizing them in the future. 

Address the conflict and not the person 

Have you ever been at odds with a co-worker over a decision and focused all your energy on overcoming the person rather than on overcoming the task?

When involved in a conflict, it is easy to make war about the person blocking your agenda, rather than addressing the specific decision that needs taking or an assignment you’re required to complete. Instead of investing all your energy in trying to overcome the person, rather invest your energy towards making progress on the work-related aspect that is not getting done. 

For example, an Event Team Recruiter is concerned about the Team Leader constantly criticizing their ideas on how to supervise the rest of the team. This made the Events Team Recruiter grow animosity toward the Team Leader. Though the Team Recruiter is justified in feeling unsatisfied with the situation, it won't help to tackle the pressing issue, which is to find a way to supervise team members. A good way for the Team Recruiter to overcome this situation is to acknowledge that while the two are on opposite sides of a decision, they should find a consensus to work together to find a solution concerning the assignment. If you detect that even after taking this approach, your co-worker is unfairly critical of your ideas, try to find the root causes of the conflict (i.e competition, difference in working styles). Then attempt to resolve the conflict informally so you can get back to the task.

Be impartial and listen actively

With conflict likely to occur in the workplace, it is vital to understand that it's usually just associated with a difference of opinion and can be sorted out through respect and active listening. When confronted by conflict, ensure that each party can get their say out regarding the issue at hand. When your co-worker is articulating their feelings, pay attention to what could be triggering the disagreement without thinking of your concerns as above theirs. Impartially listening to your co-worker's thoughts may help you quickly find a solution. If you find it hard to be impartial, preferably get a mediator to intervene. 

Other types of conflict confronting non-profits  

In a non-profit, conflict can arise from more than just disagreements among colleagues. Conflict may arise in the governance and leadership of a nonprofit threatening its ability to fulfill its mandate. A common conflict in governance is a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest occurs when personal and professional interests clash, making members of a non-profit unreliable for its goals. The main types of conflicts of interest confronting non-profits are: 

  • Conflict of loyalty

When a board member has multiple conflicting interests instead of an obligation to the non-profit, this is considered a conflict of loyalty. For example, if a Board member is part of two different charities who are both applying for funding from the same source, the board member may be conflicted on who to support concerning the application process.

  • Nonfinancial gain or benefit to the member

Non-financial gains occur when a member of a non-profit receives something from the organization that is not monetary. A good example of a non-financial gain is receiving a particular free service while everyone else pays for the same service. 

  • Direct financial gain or benefit to the member

The most common type of conflict of interest is a non-profit member making a financial gain from the nonprofit's operations. For example, a member puts their company on the run for bidding to provide services to the nonprofit. 

  • Indirect financial gain or benefit to the member

Indirect financial gain is when a nonprofit member gains a benefit that has monetary value but doesn't necessarily get money. For example, should a board member's relative get a paying job at the non-profit this is an indirect financial gain to the board member. 

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