Sunday, August 29, 2010

Difficult Personalities, Conflict, & Politics...Normal All in a Day's Work & A Way to Get Beyond Conflict

Nonprofits, like any other placed of professional business, see their share of organizational conflict, but just because it isn't unusual, it doesn't mean that it's easily allayed or an easy situation to navigate.  In fact, it rarely is, as anyone who's ever worked anywhere, as a staff member or volunteer, can empathize with.

I am stating, here, that if any workplace or person is in jeopardy of harm or real potential harm, the proper authorities should be notified immediately.  Also, if any conflict warrants professional legal advice, proper counsel should be acquired and utilized.  This post, and no other post in this blog, is intended to be used in lieu of first responders, legal counsel, or any other pertinent professional that could assist in a conflict or any other issue or problem.

Conflict is inevitable.  When someone signs onto any organization as a staff member, a contractor, as a volunteer, or even as an intern there is the likelihood, over time, that that person will be involved in some sort of conflict at the workplace, eventually.  A conflict, of course, may be anything from a simple difference of opinion to an all out violent altercation.  Sadly, the latter is not unheard of, but it is also important to keep in mind, it is not a common occurrence.

Conflict has, at least in part, to do with the people involved, and their: emotion, buy in or how much someone has invested in the situation or what caused it, personalities, experience, knowledge, ability to deal with conflict or how they cope with interpersonal conflict, and also the culture of the professional workplace and how conflicts are usually handled there (or whether usually conflict is not acknowledged and dealt with head-on).

Conflict also has to do with the organization it occurs at, the leadership working for that organization, the professional culture there, and what policies are in place to deal with problems, concerns, or conflict.

Often, once in a conflict it isn't tidy, clear how to get out of this jam.  There isn't a clear or an objective process that the people involved in the conflict are looking for.  There's other "stuff" going on.  Sometimes people in a conflict are looking to: be in control, avoid conflict, rescue their bruised ego, act out old personal patterns that come from learned behavior in childhood or formative years, retribution or vindication, validation, or less or more.  So, we can see that a lot of one's personal coping methods, or lack of them, can be a part of the conflict, too.  This is where personalities come into the conflict and have their place in it, too.
Often conflict gets broken down (in the minds of leadership and the people involved) into "right" and "wrong" or "he did this" or "she said that".  It isn't unusual and it isn't difficult to see how this is how people evaluate a conflict.  I mean, we all want to try to figure out "where did it go wrong" or "was I wrong or was she" or "we all agreed to X already, why is he now suggesting Y", etc.  Sitting here, not involved in the conflict, and having the benefit of relative objectivity, you and I can see that while it's natural to attempt to understand a conflict by reviewing it this way, this evaluation is actually emotion-laden, perhaps defensive, and likely not terribly helpful to solve the conflict or enabling of the people involved.  In fact, as you and I know, sometimes this kind of subjective analysis of a conflict can cause it to simmer or even make it worse.

We've all gone through conflict resolution trainings: " sure to use 'I statements'..."; "...don't accuse...instead clarify by sharing what you heard or thought was said or done..."; " willing to meet the other person half way..."; "...find the middle ground...".  Nothing is wrong with any of this advice.  Sometimes, though, this kind of general advice is too...well...general. It often applies best to conflicts between two or just a few more people.  Sometimes an organization wide (or leadership wide or operations team wide) conflict is a bit more difficult to rectify by everyone simply agreeing to be non disparaging.  Sometimes, what's needed is a process that moves the conflict out of the way and the organization forward.

I've been a part of interpersonal and office politics, disagreements, and all out organization-wide conflicts.  I mean, I've seen offices divided by politics generated by differences of opinion between people on the staff and people on the board; interpersonal conflicts between professionals who did not agree on best practices or best courses of action, and still more.  We all have.

Here's my advice (and it will probably include some pointers you've heard before).  This advice comes out of experience both as a participant in conflict and also as a participant to conflict resolution.  Please feel free to add any advice that you have on how a nonprofit organization or team member can help to deal with or cope with conflict in their workplace.  Comment below this post.

First, let's back up and get the big picture for a specific nonprofit's professional conduct.

First, in the least biased or involved way, tone, and wording possible, acknowledge to everyone involved that a conflict exists and then clearly state, too, that everyone involved will next work to move beyond the conflict for the good of the organization, its work, and the beneficiaries of its work.


__ Communities vary generally, community to community across the U.S., in each one's level of professionalism.  Some towns' and cities' professional culture is: proactive, up on the latest contemporary thinking in their various respective professional fields, and they're inclusive.  Others are perhaps: less open to others outside of their organization or reach of power, reactive, and doing things as they've always been done because that works.  Look at the city that your own nonprofit operates in and ask yourself is this a geographic location where businesses welcome change and new ideas, what is the general feeling among people new to the community about job availability, how welcome a brand new business is in the community, etc.?  If you are operating an organization in a less proactive and perhaps somewhat closed off business community check out continuing education opportunities in the nearest more open and less closed community or city and take some human resource management and conflict resolution courses.  Many community colleges offer continuing education classes on line, even, today.  No professional operation has to be in lock step with the general level of professionalism in one's community, especially if it isn't as vibrant, encouraging, or empowering as it could be. 

__ The nonprofit organization whose leadership doesn't anticipate conflict by officially stating in the volunteer and employee handbooks what the officially recognized and instated conflict resolution process is (including an employee grievance process) isn't helping their team members to be empowered or ensuring the work place's ability to function professionally (or even well).  None of these human resource management ideas are new and should be taken fairly seriously as a normal part of modern day human resource management, if not also professional best (or better) practices.

__ What is the specific nonprofit's general office culture?  Do team members (whether employees, interns, consultants, or volunteers) feel included and valued?  Do their supervisors and other leadership listen to their suggestions, concerns, or ideas?  Are they told when they've done a job well?  Are they repeatedly admonished for the same thing?  Are they given any support or suggestions to remedy their issue, by their superiors?  Are the administration and team members working under supervisors regularly asked to provide the upper most leadership (i.e. the board) with objective, fair, but truthful (usually anonymous) job performance feedback (just like presumably their supervisors provide about these subordinates' job performance, annually)?  Are there open door policies among all leaders, welcoming their subordinates and others to provide fair but truthful feedback or a general sense that one can share problems that they're having and feel safe, heard, and taken seriously when they do?  Is there rampant gossip among the leaders and/or staff?  Are there cliques?  Are there sacred cows that some leaders see their subordinate or subordinates as?  Is there professionalism in day to day operations among staff and leaders, or are some aspects of day to day operations childish, less than professional, retaliatory, defensive, or based in insecurities?  Again, if an operation's day to day culture is less than what it could be, there are many excellent resources to help mitigate and better the problems such as The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation Nonprofit Leadership Institute's Nonprofit Good Practice Guide (click on Human Resources in the middle of the web page); or the Centerpoint for Leaders' Human Resources Guide for Small Nonprofits ; or The Free Management Library's Human Resource Management (and Talent Management) section written by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD.

__ How well trained are each leader in the organization and that includes each person responsible for another person's work, results, etc.?   Does each leader in the organization know: modern leadership skills (and uses them), conflict resolution, effective listening and communicating skills, and how to deal with difficult personalities?  Each leader should also know basic first aid, pertinent employment laws, and who they should turn to when issues pertinent to their own work position crop up.  These questions beg that you also review the same of: the executive director, each board member, and all other leaders that oversee the organization.  This is not just a question that suggests only reviewing the organization's middle management.

__ Does each volunteer, intern, staff member, and consultant have to affirm (in some standard and official protocol) that they have received, have read, and understand the conflict resolution protocols officially in place in your nonprofit organization?

Then, to get specific to the people involved in the conflict, themselves: does the organization have a conflict resolution process or policy in place in either its bylaws, volunteer and or employee handbook, or any other official document?  If so, these should be followed.  Otherwise, consider the following:

__ Not everyone has to: like each other, agree (and in fact, nonprofits and their efforts benefit when their is dissension or disagreement as it causes discussion and discussion can move causes and their efforts forward in new, innovative, and powerful ways), or see things the same way.  Also, conflict is not a "bad" thing but rather how one feels while they are in a conflict is uncomfortable and not preferable.  The fact is reasonable people, acting reasonably, can argue, have differing opinions or points of view, and also get through conflicts reasonably.

__ Can everyone involved in the conflict sit down, face to face, safely, in a professional setting and circumstance; is each person willing to; can someone objective who is committed to remaining objective be present to take official notes; can the setting be a safe zone so that each person receives equal time to speak, agrees to listen to each other person, and can do so without disparaging, attacking, or threatening others; and does each person involved have the skills to share and listen to everyone else at the table?  Should an outside consultant, officially recognized professional mediator, or other type of professional be brought in to assist in solving the conflict?  Can a discussion be held, including all involved people who wish to be present, in a neutral location, in order to at least begin a discussion to get beyond the conflict?  A clear meeting start and end time should be set, prior to the meeting, and clearly stated to each and all persons involved.  These strict start and end times should be followed.  Each person involved (whether attending or not) should receive an outline of the meeting's topics and anticipated proceedings and it should be on point to solve the conflict and not about the conflict, people involved, how it began, etc. Finally, it should be plainly and clearly stated for everyone involved in the conflict (including those not intending to attend) that the goal of this meeting is not to discuss the conflict or people involved in it.  State that the goal of the meeting is to create one's own suggested compromise, to share that compromise, to listen to and consider each and all other suggested compromises, and then attendees (or whomever will vote) will vote on which compromise the majority agrees will stand.  Explain that the vote's finding will be how the organization will proceed.  State that only the compromises suggested at the meeting will be considered in the vote, and state who will vote, who will tally the vote, and when the vote will be held (see below for suggestions).

At the meeting...

__ When everyone who is attending is seated, can each person agree to four basic rules: to share with and also listen to each person involved in the conflict while also not disparaging anyone else present, or not present?  Thirdly, can everyone agree to a 'one person has the floor to speak, only, at any time' during the meeting?  No interrupting, eye rolling, or other forms of interference while anyone else has the floor.  Anything anyone has to say can be jotted down and brought up during their turn to speak (in a mature, non-disparaging, not personal fashion). Fourth, can each person agree that an objective democratic vote resulting in majority rules will be a way to move this conflict and the organization's goals forward? Each participant should be agree to these rules and also carry them out, during the meeting and vote.

__ What is the organization's mission statement?  What are the preexisting, established, ratified (formally set) official organizational values, vision, and what are the current organizational program goals, and for whom or what does the organization do the work that it does?  This is an already established, pre-determined set of 'truths' that each person involved in the conflict can agree upon.  These should be listed on a board in plain view of everyone.  If one of these basic core organizational attributes is at the heard of the conflict, then list the items, here, that are not a part of the conflict.  Also, these can cause or contribute to a conflict if the organization's core attributes are not clear, current, extant enough, or too general.  Are one or some of these issues contributing to a conflict or several conflicts?  If so, perhaps a strategic planning process is in order so that the organization's leadership can get these current, clear, defined, on point, and so that each is effective in the spirit of the mission statement on file with the state and IRS, and to the intended benefit of the beneficiaries of the organization's work.

__ Revisit the organization's mission, who or what is/are the beneficiaries of the organization's work and what are their known (quantifiable and verifiable) current and as yet unmet needs, and what are the organization's current (already pre-established) programs goals?  Given these "truths" each person should silently, to themselves invent and then consider what single compromises, given the conflict at hand, could result from the conflict that would, in practice: a) be in perfect alignment with the mission statement, meet each of the organization's values, and truly achieve the mission statement's goal for the better of the beneficiaries of the organization's work?  A compromise would be partly compromising their own point of view, while compromising just as much as they have their own point of view, the point of view the other people involved in the conflict.  Each compromise should also only deal specifically with each and every person's point of view state during the conflict.  In other words, no one should suggest a compromise that involves anything outside of the scope of the points of view expressed during the conflict.  Finally, each compromise must be viable.  It should not be something that is beyond the ability of the organization to carry out.  Once each person shares their compromise it will stand, unless that person needs to edit it to be certain that their suggested compromise is viable.  Each person should note to themselves what compromise they've invented.

__ Each person should be given the exact same amount of time to explain, without interruption, coercion, interference, or any other obstruction or threat what their suggested compromise is.  Each suggested compromise should be listed on a board in plain view of everyone.

__ Are there any questions (i.e. necessary clarity, details, meaning of words used in) about the listed compromises?  This is not an opportunity to argue, insert one's own point of view, etc.  The point of this step is purely to achieve on topic clarity for all.  Also, are the listed suggestions viable per the mission statement and current needs of the beneficiaries, only?  If some are but others aren't, allow the person or people who formulated the not viable compromises to tweak or alter their suggested compromise so that it is viable per the mission statement.  This is not an opportunity for anyone to change their suggested compromise, edit someone else's, or add new ones.

This is important.  Ask everyone present that will vote to stop and truly weigh each and every suggested compromise with the mission statement and beneficiaries and their needs in mind.  Nothing else, during any work that any nonprofit conducts, is as important or relevant as the mission and the beneficiaries (ever).

__ Vote.  Only compromises listed on the board should be considered during the vote.  Democratic processes for determining the majority's opinion has a way of both acknowledging that no group of individual people wholly agrees on everything (or hardly anything) while also moving a resolution based on 'majority rules' forward.  Voting may be done anonymously as long as its count is conducted by an objective uninvolved party (and can be objectively verified after the fact) in succinct time, or it may be done out in the open as long as each person involved feels safe and included in the vote, and its tally, when doing so.

If a vote is held and it's a stalemate or results in further conflict, then the organization may need to use an outside mediation resource, other process, or involve more time to resolve the conflict.

Also, the democratic vote can be put to the people involved in the conflict, at the meeting to solve the conflict, or the suggested compromises should perhaps be shared with the board and executive director (if one or each are not present) before the vote, if the vote is one that they uniquely should vote on, then they should proceed (as per the organization's by laws). I've also heard of organizations in conflict putting only the vote to its membership, clients, donors, etc. (without also sharing, officially or less than officially, the conflict, who is  involved, how the conflict began, etc.).  Which ever group of people who are most likely to base their vote on what's best for the organization's mission statement work and the beneficiaries of the organization's work should be at least considered as potential voters.

This kind of organizational disruption occurs and is inevitable, but how an organization's leadership handles it can be critical to the organization's professional reputation, ability to succeed at its work, its ability to recruit talented volunteers and staff in the future, and more.  This kind of conflict can be expensive, too, and not just in monetary value.  Dealing with a conflict head on acknowledges it and expedites moving the organization beyond it. 
After the conflict is moved along by the process of addressing what is best for the organization and its beneficiaries, given the mission statement; the leadership should (depending on how disruptive to the organization's work, professionalism, teamwork, reputation, or whatever that this particular conflict was): review the situations, climate, misunderstandings, lack of policies, lack of protocols, lack of knowledge or experience that (one can objectively note reasonably defend as in part or wholly) led to the conflict.  Perhaps an objective independent committee should be convened to study the conflict and then provide its unbiased findings.  Then the leadership should take objective findings seriously, and learn about what can be done to avoid this kind of disruptive conflict in the future, organizationally.  Next the leaders should discuss what has been learned (contemporary professional best practices options), and finally ratify organizational processes or policies that mitigate against such a conflict occurring again if it's possible to.  Never forget that most occurrences, conflict or other less interpersonal forms of difficulties, that happen in a professional setting have happened before, and the benefit in this is some organization somewhere else may have found an excellent solution or remedy that also happened to really improve their organization and its operations.  Conflict occurs and in all professions.  Do not assume that you have to reinvent the wheel each time your organization bumps into challenges.

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