How to Lead a Conflict-Positive Organization

Photo by UNOPS-LOKC Team Member

How to Lead a Conflict-Positive Organization

The NGO sector has several distinctive characteristics that, on occasion, cause internal conflicts.

In fact, of 93 international NGOs surveyed working in over 100 countries, 82% believe their organization’s capacity to respond to internal conflict is less than adequate.

What sort of internal conflict, you ask? Let’s look at a few examples.

Given staff’s commitment to mission, a disagreement can quickly become about more than just a difference in strategy. A sense of moral licensing of a noble end goal can create self-permission for abrasive behavior in honor of the greater good. Or on a more operational basis, tensions sometimes exist between fundraisers and field programming regarding how to portray local populations, or how to showcase a sponsored child while not separating them out from the rest of the community. As the sector enters more turbulent times, we also risk importing turbulence and mirroring field stressors in the workplace environment.

InterAction held a webinar to learn how to turn conflict into opportunity with the authors of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s (SSIR) study The Upside of Conflict.

Conflict can devolve into toxicity and dysfunctionality or evolve into greater resilience and program effectiveness. How conflict is managed matters. The study’s authors highlight that four elements—leadership, organization culture, conflict process, and relationships—can transform conflict into opportunity and support positively adapting to a turbulent world.

In the webinar, we explored the first element of conflict competence—leadership—with Upside of Conflict co-author Dr. Alan Fowler. Dr. Fowler emphasizes three essential aspects of leadership that support a conflict-competent nonprofit development organization. We created a printable check-list to keep focus on developing these abilities.

1. Consciously establish a supportive organization environment for dealing with conflict constructively.

What does this look like? Three tips:

Tip 1: Clarify where authorities are distributed.

Someone may have the authority to help work through the conflict, but do they have the responsibility? Be clear in organization design who has both the authority and the responsibility for helping staff resolve conflict. For example, a staff person might be based in one country, reporting to a line manager in another country, who reports to a person in a third country, making it complicated in conflict to know who to turn to.

Tip 2: Ensure staff know who is responsible for helping them productively advance during conflict.

This person is responsible for helping staff find resolutions and ensuring that the energy created by the conflict is used productively to help the organization advance. As a manager, knowing you are accountable for helping staff through conflict provides a psychological license to invest time in doing so. When staff know that the person or manager in question considers helping staff through conflict to be part of their role, it creates a sense of safety and can help staff develop the courage to positively address conflict, giving the situation a chance to evolve from friction to opportunity.

Tip 3: Speak of conflict as a normal part of organizational life because it is.

Rather than projecting it as an organizational illness, speak about conflict as a feature in life and, when facing a specific disagreement, take care to speak about it both as part and parcel of organizational reality and as an opportunity to learn and adapt. By acknowledging conflict as a normal feature, staff mindset can shift from feeling stuck in problematic discord to acknowledging that conflict is real. Conflict happens, but it can be adapted into opportunities.


2. Enable yourself to make conflict positive.

Tip 1: Embody the psychological contract that the organization has with its followers.

Staff can be even more connected to the organization’s mission and vision than to their salary. As a leader, intentionally seek to represent what the organization stands for and its values. Acting in alignment with organizational values and principles is an important part of trust.

Tip 2: Voice your awareness of and comfort with dealing with conflict at the personal level.

Speaking to and, even more so, modeling pausing with a conflict to find opportunity sets an institutional tone for how to deal with conflict. Leadership behavior signals what is and is not okay in a workplace environment and gives tacit permission for others to do the same.

Tip 3: Be careful about the words you use.

Don’t stigmatize conflict: it’s a reality we all must deal with. Stay on message. Why? How we talk about conflict sets a tone for how to handle it.

Tip 4: Be consistent in your commitment.

Consistency signals that the hard work of turning conflict into opportunity is a priority and is expected.

Tip 5: Welcome and include diverse perspectives.

Diverse perspectives can be treated as a problematic conflict that rubs against the group’s dominant thinking or they can be welcomed. Welcoming diverse perspectives opens up rich problem exploration, increasing the chances of a high-quality solution.

3. Read the organization—choose measures to understand how your organization is functioning in terms of conflict.

Tip 1: Keep an eye on language and narratives being used to explain the conflict.

How assertive, aggressive, or blame-gaming are the narratives? Narratives signal the mindset with which conflict is being approached and provide a pulse for if a problem is being approached with the openness needed for growing opportunity out of conflict.

Tip 2: Notice if disagreements are signaling deeper dissent.

Are arguments becoming more antagonistic rather than serving as conversations to find solutions to a problem? Growing hostility can signal that there is more important content and context to be understood within the conflict.

Tip 3: Are the normal core processes slowing down and floundering?

Heavily belabored decision processes can signal sub-surface disagreement that needs to be explored.

Tip 4: Track how the resolution of past conflicts is working out.

Are the lessons learned being incorporated and is the organization moving on? If so, it suggests that conflicts are becoming productive. However, the absence of attempts to incorporate past learning or the presence of continued dwelling on a past conflict signals that the conflict has not yet come to a positive resolution and needs to be revisited.

Tip 5: Are your partners asking you what is going on, signaling they might be picking things up that you are not aware of?

Stakeholders can at times see important challenges that leaders inside of the organization are not readily able to see. Pausing to reflect on partner comments can provide valuable insight.

Why, again, does this matter? Respondents to the intra-organizational conflict survey rank the top three negative effects of unmanaged conflict on their organization as first and foremost morale, reduced communication, and troubled or terminated employment; secondly, wasted time and/or money; and thirdly, actual or perceived loss in the organization’s reputation or credibility.

In times of uncertainty, allocating resources for conflict competency is not a cost, it is an investment of time, energy, and attention. As Dr. Fowler bottom-lines, keep asking yourself, “What is the effect of the external environment on my internal operating environment?” Conflict is a normal part of organizational life, and research finds that leadership is a key element in turning the energy drain of conflict into contributory adaptive energy. It is learnable. And these tips can help keep you on track.

This blog is part two of a five-part series on healthy conflict perspective. Read part one here.