Avoid the Top 5 Workplace Conflicts and Build Team Harmony

collaborations communication compliance conflict of interest harmony management Mar 24, 2023
Capacity Experts: Avoid the Top 5 Workplace Conflicts and Build Team Harmony

Workplace conflict in a nonprofit where most employees are values-driven is a toxic dynamic that can derail the organization from its mission. In order to create a harmonious work environment in which everyone collaborates and pitches in, it is important to address unhealthy conflict right away. Otherwise, unhealthy workplace conflicts can result in turf wars across departments, divisions, or field specialties. The ensuing tensions often result in a very confusing and stressful environment for those who get caught in the crossfire. 

Not all "conflict” in the workplace is negative, though. Some examples of healthy conflict include when employees: 1) express differences in opinion regarding a potential solution and come to a productive resolution; 2) discuss and evaluate potential obstacles and perspectives to come up with a potential solution; and 3) examine and tackle the ethical implications of specific actions or strategies. The expression of wide-ranging experiences and perspectives is critical to meaningful and sustainable problem-solving.

Unhealthy conflict in the workplace, on the other hand, looks very different. It is often agenda driven and is not focused on problem-solving. The following 5 circumstances often result in unhealthy workplace conflict and require action:


1. Confusion About Decision-Making and Role Assignments

It is very common for conflict to arise when people don't understand what rules they are supposed to adhere to, what the collaboration process looks like, or whether their job description is changing as a result of a specific project. Furthermore, when there is a lack of clarity on what the chain of command looks like or how decisions are made, confusion and conflict often ensue.  Inevitably, when there is ambiguity and people realize they will be held accountable if the work isn’t done, one or multiple people will still step up to fill the leadership gap. This can result in duplication of work, stagnation, and conflict over who has the authority to make a decision on a specific issue. It also makes accountability and measuring outcomes difficult.

It’s essential to clearly articulate:

  • Who the decision-maker is from the beginning, 
  • Who is responsible for different types of work, 
  • Who has to be informed about specific issues, 
  • Who is responsible for implementing the work, 
  • Who has what assignments, and 
  • What are the specific dates for deliverables?

This downloadable  DARCI for creating clarity on board governance responsibilities is a great tool to use to accomplish all of these objectives and can be replicated for multiple scenarios.


2. Old Guard vs New Guard

Conflict often arises between long-standing employees and younger generations that may have different training or new approaches to carrying out the work. This also occurs when a new leader takes the helm of an organization. The long-standing employees have a historical context, an emotional relationship to the organization, and an understanding of how and why specific programs, policies, and procedures were developed. They also likely have long-standing relationships with funders and regulators. As a result, when a new leader or younger staff with different perspectives wants to change practices, it is not uncommon to hear, "This is not how we have historically done this, and the way we do it works." Encountering this attitude makes innovation and implementing necessary improvements very difficult. 

Conversely, incoming staff often dismiss the recommendations and wisdom of the senior staff members because they believe them to be “out-of-touch" or “less enlightened” than them. Under this scenario, important and preventative recommendations and practices that are based on experience are ignored, which can result in unintended consequences for programs and the organization.

In reality, the perspective of both groups is critical to impactful problem-solving. These generational and experiential biases and misunderstandings are counterproductive and must immediately be addressed. Conversations around overcoming differences should always focus on solving a specific issue through inclusive and participatory conversations. Potential obstacles to implementation should be explored by respectfully considering different perspectives. Discussions around why things are being done in a particular way and what works or does not work about those approaches should be held. Eliminating or making improvements to existing practices while undergoing inclusive team discussions will also generate a better understanding amongst both groups by helping employees understand the other’s perspective. Lastly, it is essential to create a “values” connection through an ETHOS framework that helps to build a stronger and more collaborative team. ETHOS stands for Ethics, Transparency, Harmony, Organizational Infrastructure, and Sustainability.

Professional Disagreements Driven by Field Specialties

It is always important to remember that despite the fact that certain fields share similarities and values when care and services overlap the field-specific training of each specialty will often generate conflict. For example, the training of a psychiatrist, psychologist, and clinical social worker will lead each to consider significantly different approaches to treating patients or managing processes. As a result, power struggles can ensue, which can have a detrimental impact and stagnate care for patients or the mission of an organization. 

Under these circumstances, it is also essential to engage in inclusive and participatory conversations that engage in a 360-degree approach to problem-solving that is grounded in the ETHOS framework and considers varying perspectives.


3. Personality Clashes

Sometimes, people just don't like each other at work. They would never interact outside of the office, and they have little to nothing in common. Furthermore, their personal styles for problem-solving are completely at odds with one another. These personality conflicts do require immediate intervention. It is essential to hold discussions about how to work on a project as a team. This includes clearly set goals, objectives, designations of authority, roles, and responsibilities, definitions for deliverables, and timelines. 

A useful strategy to help to distinguish between a real problem and a personality conflict is always to ask the following question,” Is there something unethical or wrong with the approach that is being taken, or is the concern that you would use a different strategy?”If something is wrong, what are concrete steps that can be taken to pivot and if it is a different personal approach, is modification really necessary?


4. Insufficient Capacity to Manage Implementation and  Logistical Realities 

Conflicts often surface based on the realities of the day-to-day work and functions of employees. For example, there may be logistical challenges such as insufficient staff, administrative or technical obstacles, or financial limitations that place an unfair burden on staff to complete nearly impossible tasks and compete with their basic functions. As a result, employees realize they will be held accountable for an insurmountable task and want to find ways to make the process more efficient or avoid adding additional responsibilities so they are not blamed if something goes wrong. This scenario often results in great turmoil in organizations.

Integrating the ETHOS framework into your planning by creating forums for inclusive discussions that conduct a 360-degree evaluation of the administrative, technical, fiscal, and logistical feasibility of a project or initiative. The inclusion of individuals across multiple levels of the organization helps to create a better understanding of the implementation obstacles, builds a sense of community across the team, and creates a sense of harmony by preemptively mitigating confusion or capacity issues. 

It is also essential in this process to create a “values” connection with the project as capacity is assessed. Part of the discussion should include when it would become unethical to proceed with a project by considering the impact on employees, the mission, and the people the mission serves.





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