When Conflict can be Just What you Need
The Effect of Conflict on Decision Making, Ideas and Communication
When individuals are faced with conflict, we typically experience our body’s natural fight or flight reflex, with our temperatures rising, heart pounding and palms clammy. Many choose flight, thus avoiding the conflict, whilst others opt to fight and confront it head on. There is a happy middle ground where a positive approach to managing conflict can be a useful catalyst for innovation and growth, at the same time strengthening individuals and the collective group too. Some of the best examples I’ve seen of this have been within the not for profit sector.
When Conflict can be a Strength
Avoid a Group Mindset
A board of trustees or a senior management team can develop a group mindset, where the decisions made are not reflective of the individual members thoughts, but represents a blander view that everyone can agree on. It has been widely reported that there is a lack of diversity amongst charity boards which can make the group mindset a very real risk to the effectiveness of the board.
Better Developed Ideas
Ideas that are subject to challenge will have been well thought out and developed. Very rarely is our first version of an idea perfect and unable to be enhanced through a robust discussion of its merits. Ideas are “road tested” before they are presented in their final form. The process can also make us more committed to an idea.
New and Innovative Ideas
Conflict can involve a lot of dialogue back and forth, with input from a variety of sources. This process can encourage creativity and flexibility, leading to new ideas that wouldn’t be identified any other way.
Conflict usually leads to change and solutions being identified, which is driven by the often intense nature of conflict and challenge which is then difficult to ignore once an expression of opposing views has taken place.
Conflict creates feelings of discomfort and anxiety, but learning to manage it properly instils a sense of important leadership and life skills, such as listening, compromise, negotiation, influencing and accepting when you are wrong.
Understanding Other Styles and Behaviours
Observing how colleagues handle conflict can teach you a lot about them, their values, their styles and patterns of behaviour. By managing conflict, we also learn about ourselves too. Such observations can provide useful insights into colleagues, which can lead to more effective interpersonal relationships. Healthy conflict can produce positive outcomes, deepen relationships and act as a catalyst for good governance and growth.
How to Encourage Healthy Conflict
- Ensure all board members feel their views and contribution is valued equally, by being open and encouraging participation and questions.
- Maintain a diverse board composition, particularly ensuring that the characteristics of the beneficiaries of the charity are well represented.
- Focus on the facts of the matter and not the individual proposing them.
- Get to the point quickly through calm and assertive behaviour, allowing more time to be spent working towards a resolution, based primarily on reaching an understanding rather than an agreement.
- Often a neutral or independent person joining discussions where conflict is likely can prove useful in cultivating the right environment.
We worked with a trustee board in a small charity which did have a diverse group of people at board level, but also had a dominant Chairperson. This meant that whilst others had alternative views, it was the Chairpersons views that formed the basis of decisions made and which were supported by an agreeable board.
The financial position of the charity came under significant pressure, as is so often the case in the sector and the future strategic direction of the charity needed consideration and robust budgets to be put in place. The trustees had different ideas about how this could be done and different levels of understanding of the finances; for the sake of the charity’s future, the board needed to work together on this. As mentioned, the Chair was a dominant character and whilst they had a lot of detailed knowledge of the charity itself, finance wasn’t their particular skillset.
The significance of the issue and the expertise of those around the table meant that others spoke up when they had previously been very reserved. The Chairperson had not faced much challenge in the past and to everyone’s surprise and delight, the Chair was thrilled that his colleagues were being more open, he listened intently to everyone’s views, making them all feel their contributions were welcomed and valued. He asked questions, demonstrated empathy and confirmed his understanding of what the other members were saying.
The dynamics of the group changed from that day on into a more collaborative and open group. The Chair hadn’t been aware of their own influence on the group and as soon as different views and opinions were expressed and conflict was identified, the Chair amended his behaviour brilliantly. It was handled in a healthy and constructive way and a much stronger strategic plan and budget was created as a result. Many of the trustees felt a greater sense of ownership towards the output which they had contributed towards and were willing to commit more time to the project as a result.
If you would like to turn around conflict in your board or organisation, we can provide training, facilitation and support to enable you to enjoy the many benefits that well managed conflict can bring. Please contact Hannah Farmborough or call on 0207 429 4147 to be put in touch with a member of our Not for Profit team.
This article is from our Using Conflict as a Catalyst for Change report, a guide to help you embrace, manage and mitigate conflict within your charity.