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Non-Profit Leadership: How to Normalize Conflict

Two men sitting at desk looking at each other.
Two men sitting at desk looking at each other.

A non-profit leader who has any level of compassion would admit that one of the hardest parts of leadership is when there is personal or organizational conflict. It is predictable that not everyone can agree on any one issue. There are different perspectives, changing issues, decisions that are controversial, and personal opinions that can be very strong. After a full day of problem-solving, strategic planning, working through a myriad of issues, and then ending the day with lingering conflict can leave a leader with doubt, concerns, raw emotions, and insecurities.

There are all kinds of reactions and coping mechanisms that are available to a leader in such moments. Escape, anxiety, depression, obsessing, or just deciding to deny that it even exists are all possibilities. For those leaders who have been inclusive about decisions only to sense that the synergy of opinions have resulted in unresolved conflict, one may think it is just better to make the decisions on their own and bear the consequences. However, as simple as that sounds, it creates more dissonance than organizational harmony.

As difficult as the consequences of conflict may be, it is important to realize that every growing organization has it. It is often the tension between leaders that makes the organization strong.

Conflict is absolutely necessary for growth. Wrestling through the difficult issues are the essence of organizational strength. Conversely, if there is no conflict, there is little true growth that will lead to new dimensions that must exist for an organization or a leadership team to emerge.

I recognize that in times of unresolved conflict there can be hurt feelings, hard moments, difficult emotions, and sometimes a sense of felt rejection. What we must realize is that any change of a mental model or long-term organizational legacy can be very threatening. It is our role as leaders to maintain our values, hold fast to our mission and vision, bring everyone along with us, hear their pain, and help them through the shifting sands of organizational growth and the normal conflicts that simultaneously occur.

Normalizing conflict is such an important relief valve for non-profit leaders. We need to embrace it as part of the process of how growth occurs. It is also a deeper way to get to know what everyone on your leadership team values as you move ahead together to your next phase of emergence. Yes, there can be lots of emotions, but those emotions can lead us to a depth of understanding of each other, the many moving parts of our staff and organization and a fresh connection to the outside world. Who knows, it may provide individual growth steps for our leadership that will surface our own struggles and lead us to a stronger vision of who we can be together and what we can achieve as an organization!

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO

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