Why Civil Society Organizations Need Healthy Conflict Skills

Photo By:  Lucien Lung is licensed under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Why Civil Society Organizations Need Healthy Conflict Skills

Too many organizations ignore or avoid addressing internal conflict. Yet, our increasingly complex and disruptive operating environment – think shifting power dynamics, donor priorities, and political and public policy shifts – can trigger or exacerbate intra-organization conflict.

Conflict denial and avoidance permeate society. For an organization, conflict avoidance hurts morale and drains energy; healthy conflict skills can help with confronting difference and adapting to a turbulent world.

Researchers of Healthy Conflict Perspective (HCP) for civil society organizations recently shared in an InterAction community webinar four essential elements to crafting resilience through conflict and finding its “upside” – the creativity that lies in conflict well addressed.

Before sharing the elements, I want to point out a risk we saw in the webinar poll. A strong majority of attendees shared that they were not comfortable adapting their organization to an HPC without outside help. And, they lacked confidence that colleagues would be enthusiastic about learning HPCs.

I get it – facing conflict head-on feels like torture squared. So, what’s a mission-driven person to do? Learn enough to believe that through taking on the challenge comes growth.

InterAction’s webinar presenters and authors of Stanford Social Innovation Review’s The Upside of Conflict shared how NGOs can transform destructive internal conflict into resilience, improve internal function, and spur needed innovation.

Drumroll please for the four elements:

  • Leadership – sustained and conflict-competent
  • Organization culture – open, inclusive, engenders trust
  • Conflict process – fair and efficient
  • Relationships – respectful, founded on conversational competence

Over the next weeks, we will explore each of these elements. But first, I want to emphasize the research on why becoming conflict competent is so important for civil society organizations (CSOs).

Study co-author and conflict advisor Elizabeth Fields explains: CSOs, and the people that work for them, have characteristics and traits that make them more vulnerable to conflict becoming destructive, if measures are not put in place to help staff and members constructively engage with difference and disagreement. If conflict is left unaddressed, it can escalate more quickly and become more entrenched than conflicts in other types of organizations.

What is it, exactly, that makes CSOs more vulnerable to destructive conflict?

Number 1:

Values. CSO staff tend to be values-driven, which is both a strength and a risk. Staff join their organization anticipating justice, fairness, dignity, and solidarity – values that the organization espouses in the external world. These values can help people constructively engage in conflict, and they can also lead to conflict “exploding” more rapidly. The escalation often happens if people believe that these values are not put into practice – fueling conflict and diminishing our trust in leadership.

Number 2:

Identity. Staff in CSOs often have a strong bond to the mission of the organization. This trait can be positive when they are engaged and committed to the work of the CSO – but it can also potentially trigger conflict escalation and entrenchment. A disagreement can quickly become about more than just a difference on strategy and instead become a threat to an individual’s identity. This, in turn, may trigger more extreme reactions and identity-protective stances, rather than the needed collaborative approaches.

Number 3:

Mission mirroring. Every day, staff put in countless hours trying to fix complex issues. In doing this, they may mirror and replicate the very same problems they are trying to change in the world inside the organization. Moreover, they may use the tools they employ externally in pursuit of social change, internally, and on each other.

Number 4:

Moral license. Also known as “credentialing,” this is a cognitive bias that allows people to justify or excuse unethical or undesirable behavior because they have a confident self-image of being or doing “good.”  A simple example of this is justifying a slice of cake because you’ve recently exercised.  In other words, we can get a bit lazier about checking or editing our behavior if we believe that we have behaved in a positive way.  One researcher has identified that this phenomenon is present in the non-profit sector, and this blind-spot can negatively influence behavior.

Number 5:

Wellness. Research on staff working in the human rights field shows that there are elevated rates of PTSD and depression across the sector. Compound this with vicarious trauma and stress that often comes with the nature of civil society work and locations of implementation –burnout and overwhelm are to be expected. Increased stress will also affect behavior, problem-solving, interaction, and how people view and engage in disagreement

Despite the vulnerabilities, there is opportunity to reap benefits from conflict. Research has identified several benefits from constructive conflict.  Conflict can spur creativity and new thinking, lead to better decision-making and stronger relationships, and effectively addressed, intra-organizational conflict can provide extra resilience in turbulent times.

The problems CSOs are working on are big. The shifting operational ecosystem raises stress. Both exacerbate internal conflict.



Ready to tune in and turn the tide for your organization? Upcoming blog posts will include tips and understanding regarding research-backed elements for healthy conflict.

  1. Sign up HERE if you would like to be in peer conversation on infusing Healthy Conflict Perspective intra-organizationally or sign up HERE to be kept apprised of these and other NGO Futures developments.
  2. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs breaking down these different research components.
  3. Click HERE for helpful conflict resources.

This is part one of a five-part series.

Healthy Conflict Perspective researchers, authors, and webinar hosts:

Elizabeth Fields, Amnesty International

Alan Fowler and Joseph McMahon, Inter-Mediation International

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