Causes of conflict

You would be fortunate to get through a career as a manager of volunteers without occasionally encountering conflict between the people you work with.

Psychologists Art Bell and Brett Hart suggest that it is easier to choose an appropriate response to dealing with conflicts or difficulties if you have first worked out the cause. They identified eight common causes of conflict at work:

  1. Conflicting resources
  2. Conflicting styles
  3. Conflicting perceptions
  4. Conflicting goals
  5. Conflicting pressures
  6. Conflicting roles
  7. Different personal values
  8. Unpredictable policies

Identifying underlying causes can both help to reduce the risk of conflict occurring, and help you find strategies to deal with conflict when it does arise. Here are a couple of examples.

Conflicting perceptions

Conflict between volunteersYou may have found yourself in a situation where you’ve asked a volunteer if they’d like to take on a new task, only to find that another volunteer feels that they should have been offered the task. This is an example of conflicting perceptions – a situation where two or more parties are interpreting things differently.

Bell and Hart suggest a key strategy here is to engage in open communication. So in this instance it will be important to identify who might be affected by your decision to assign or delegate the task e.g. other volunteers, staff members, services users. You can then make sure that you share information appropriately about what you’ve decided and the reasons.

Communication is a two-way process so it is vital to listen to the affected parties, to invite feedback and agree any next steps. For example, you can find out from the other volunteer what new tasks they would be interested in and plan for future opportunities. This might involve providing additional support or mentoring to equip them with the skills required.

Conflicting styles

We all approach tasks in our own unique way, based on our personality and past experiences of success and failure. For example some volunteers like to work quickly, getting the job done on time and not getting too worried if some of the details aren’t quite right. On the other hand, there will be volunteers who pay great attention to detail and will feel unhappy about rushing – they want to do a perfect job every time regardless of time pressures. It is easy to see how these differing styles and approaches may clash.

To prevent and address conflict, you can work with the team to identify their different working styles. Your goal is to enable everyone to recognise and value different styles of working, and appreciate what others can bring to the team. You can use a profiling tool to help with this identification. An example of a profiling tool is DISC. One of the distinctions offered by DISC is whether individuals are more focused on tasks or on people, and it may be that by appreciating the difference in focus, it is easier to understand and appreciate why others behave the way they do. (You can learn more about DISC here.)

To break unhelpful patterns of behaviour, it may also be useful to agree some team rules around giving feedback to each other. For example:

  • every time you work with another volunteer you offer at least one piece of positive feedback
  • if you feel yourself starting to get exasperated or annoyed, having an agreed response or phrase that acknowledges how you feel, but doesn’t verbally attack the other person.

What strategies have you used to head off or diffuse conflict?  

What do you think?