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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

Myth Busting: Conflict Belongs in Nonprofits

This is a guest blog by Betsy Block with B3 Coaching

Nonprofit leaders generally want to create supportive environments for their team, but in doing so can often tiptoe around potential conflict rather than using that conflict to benefit the team and the organization.  Here are a handful of myths about conflict in nonprofits that need some debunking: 

Myth #1: Conflict is unpleasant.

While this is true for “unskilled” conflict, it does not need to be true for all disagreements.  Conflict does not automatically mean fighting or arguing; rather, it can simply and powerfully mean allowing ideas that seem incompatible to surface.  So often, individuals on teams are unaccustomed to sitting with differing ideas, or leaders lack the tools to support their expression. When leaders let unstructured or “unskilled” conflict happen, then teams may fall into arguing. 

But teams that value opening conversation to a full and open variety of ideas make investments to develop skill at inviting dissent into conversations – in other words, they invite conflict.  As a leader, consider introducing terms like generative or constructive conflict, principled struggle, or even “rumble” to your team to signal that these conversations can have a beneficial purpose.

Myth #2: Consensus brings a team to the best ideas.

Eventually, a team needs to get to agreements to move ahead on projects and the like. However, rushing to consensus can be costly – think of those who are unwilling to speak to risk out of fear or “getting in the way”; or conversely, organizations unwilling to think outside their norms who lose competitive advantage (yes, even in nonprofits).  Researchers have studied this over the years, and note that groups with an over-focus on cohesion or consensus will step over unique, creative, and innovative ideas; this over-focus eventually leads to fear of being a dissenter, and the suppression of unique ideas within a group.  So a leader needs to consider when a group gets to consensus, making space for dissent along the way.

Myth #3: We support teams by helping them avoid conflict.

If a leader is directing teams to side-step conflict, then the leader may doubt their capacity to support skillful conflict, or lacks confidence in their team’s ability to handle it. Sadly this can reinforce the very cultural norms leaders are trying to avoid, particularly those rooted in white supremacy, where the leader suppresses individuality (and leads to an even deeper fear of conflict).  At its worst, it positions the leader or facilitator as a savior.  This is equally true for consultants, facilitators, and coaches who support teams.

Myth #4: Conflict will tear my team apart.

Actually, avoiding conflict is more likely to cause “toxic positivity” and deteriorate team trust rather than reinforce it.  Imagine the impact of developing an idea of which you are proud, but then feeling unable to express it because you fear the reactions of your colleagues.  Those small moments grow over time, leading to resentment and distrust of the team.  

Myth #5: I don’t have the skill to lead my team through this

There are tools to introduce your team to generative conflict, and you can learn them and make conflict a positive force within your team. First, though, you must do foundation-laying work ensuring that your team dynamics are trauma informed and do not reinforce white supremacy culture.  There is a risk, particularly if the leader is white, of introducing conflict in a way that surfaces trauma and reinforces patriarchal and oppressive culture.  HOWEVER, leaders can bring in some energetic and playful ways that allow teams to begin to see that conflict is an ally: one of my favorites has its roots in improv theater. This method is called “world’s worst,”and  rather than asking teams to align on how to do something “correctly,” you ask them to do it WRONG.  Let them popcorn up ideas (or write them down on stickies if you want to be super inclusive) of how the absolute worst solution to the problem.  Here, wildly different ideas are welcome, even funny, and it gives everyone full permission to contribute without thinking about what’s at stake (being right about something).  

Conflict as Superpower

Conflict can actually be the superpower of a nonprofit team, supporting the flexibility and agility of a team to adapt in the constantly changing world around us.  Teams must build this skill with care, and the first step is to break down some long-held, often fiercely-held, myths about conflict in the sector.  

Did you recognize these assumptions or did this discussion provoke ideas?

You can join me for the 2-part series on the Power of Conflict:

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