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blog • Resource


Ria Patel

27 July 2021

This week, I am discussing conflict and conflict resolution.

The last topic we discussed was financial literacy, and you can read the blog here, which gives an introduction to trustee finance for people with no background in finance. The learning group also recorded this podcast to discuss our worries, and our top tips can be found here.

The questions I aim to cover in this section of the project are:

  • What is conflict?
  • What different types of conflict are there?
  • What are common situations in which conflict can arise within a trustee board?
  • What are the best methods of conflict resolution and how can they be carried out?

Conflict is a normal part of life, and is not always a negative thing, if handled in the right way. For example, having a minor disagreement could allow you to identify areas of improvement, and lead to growth and development. This type of conflict is known as functional conflict, as it is unlikely to significantly affect team performance, meaning the team can remain functional and achieve their goals. Though, it is important to monitor functional conflict, as if it becomes frequent it could negatively impact the board’s morale and effectiveness.

However, if conflict escalates, it can be harmful or disruptive, if left unresolved. This type of conflict refers to people having larger disagreements over goals, methods, needs etc. of the board. It is known as dysfunctional conflict, as it disrupts teamwork and prevents the team from achieving their goals. As such, dysfunctional conflict should be resolved in an appropriate way to avoid further escalation and minimise disruption to the board’s performance.

Conflict can also be constructive or destructive, when looking at behaviour. With constructive conflicts, a solution can be reached and may lead to team growth. However, with destructive conflicts, no solution is found so the problem remains, drawing attention away from more important tasks.

Conflict can arise as a result of many things, e.g. opposing beliefs, perspectives, or different personalities which clash. Oftentimes, conflict occurs due to poor communication, which can lead to misunderstandings. As such, trustees should try to explain concepts in a clear manner and ask questions to clarify if confused.

Task based conflicts occur when individuals rely on each team member to do their part project: if someone doesn’t complete their part, or pull their weight, other people cannot do their section. This can affect efficiency and may mean tasks aren’t completed on time. In terms of the board, task based conflicts could occur in subcommittees tasked with a project. Implementing a method to reflect on tasks or goals may help to hold trustees accountable, in order to ensure actions are being completed and avoid poor performance.

Another type of conflict is work style conflicts, which occur due to obvious differences in work styles, perhaps due to personalities or how people work best. For example, some people need strict guidelines to work, whereas other people may want to get more creative with tasks given to them and want to work on a more individual basis. As such, it may be worth playing to the team’s strengths when allocating tasks, as some tasks may be suited to some individuals more than others. This could help to avoid conflict between team members, whilst being effective as a board.

The final type of conflict I shall discuss is leadership conflict. Different people have different leadership styles. Leadership based conflict can occur if different leadership styles are present on the board, or if people do not fully understand the remits and responsibilities of their role. To avoid this, it may be necessary to make adjustments to your leadership style to allow for team cohesion.

Through understanding types of conflicts, and how and why they occurred, trustees and mediators are better placed to resolve the conflicts, as well as prevent future conflicts.

How to avoid conflict

A key way to avoid conflict is by being proactive. This can be applied in many ways, depending on your role on the board. For example, if you’re the chair, you could take time to understand your leadership style and the skills you have, including if you have conflict resolution skills. Hersey and Blanchard proposed the Situational Leadership Model, in which different leadership styles are beneficial depending on the situation, team needs and task at hand. The board as a whole could engage in team development, to better understand what stage the board is at and the dynamics of the board. This page outlines useful building blocks for developing teams, and this page outlines different stages of a team.

Understanding roles and responsibilities of individuals on the board and the board as a whole is also important. There are many models for teams, but The Belbin Model, which you can read more about here, outlines 9 key team roles. Having a variety of these team roles can lead to effective teams.

Another way to avoid conflict is through clear communication and clarifying if you are unsure. Be patient and allow people to take their time to clearly articulate their thoughts. When communicating, avoid making assumptions. For example, don’t state statements that you’ve only heard from word of mouth, and use phrases such as: ‘as far as I’m aware’, ‘to my knowledge’, ‘as I understand it’. This also applies to when you’re resolving a conflict as a mediator.

As a chair, you should step in when needed, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. For example, if a trustee is repeatedly being interrupted, make sure they finish their idea or what they have to say.

How to resolve conflict

Resolving conflicts is important to prevent further negative impact on board dynamics and effectiveness. This ensures a safe and comfortable work environment, where trustees can have stable relationships in the future. People can take different approaches to resolving conflict, some of which are more productive than others. For example, avoiding conflict or dominating the conversation are less effective than compromising. Explanations for different types of conflict resolution styles can be found here.

Throughout the process it’s important to stay calm, professional and be patient. To begin with, if you are comfortable, you could approach the individual in an informal way to have a discussion about the conflict. However, if this doesn’t work, or wouldn’t be beneficial, a more formal approach may be needed. For example, following a complaints procedure or mediation policy.

Mediation usually involves the mediator communicating with the parties involved, and talking to them each individually first, to make sure you know all possible sides to the story. Then those involved are brought together to have a resolution-based discussion, with the end goal of developing a plan that everyone involved agrees to, in order to resolve the conflict and address any future steps that need to be taken. If this mediation process does not work, whether due to failure of cooperation or more serious situations like discrimination, escalation may be necessary.

As a mediator you should be fair and impartial to those involved in the conflict. Even if you agree with one individual, make sure to listen to other people’s perspectives and impartially judge the situation. Create a plan collaboratively, with all parties involved in the conflict. Remember that as a mediator you are there to guide the discussion, ensure all parties have an equal opportunity to speak, and enable all parties to work through the problems, rather than make decisions for them. You can also learn to spot early signs of conflict escalation to prevent further harm, for example by observing body language, facial expressions, tone of voice etc.

When participating in a mediation, acknowledge that there is a conflict, and try to work towards a solution. Remember to communicate clearly, but also listen to what the other party is saying. Try to be empathetic and understand how the other party feels.

There are a lot of factors involved in conflict and conflict resolution, only some of which I have touched upon in this blog. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources on this topic on the internet,  if you wish to deep dive in further. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my podcast and follow-up blog on this topic.

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