We Can Work It Out: Managing Workplace Disputes

by | May 2, 2016

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

Few things are more frustrating in the workplace than feeling unheard, especially when it comes to sensitive matters such as interpersonal workplace conflicts. And according to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” is the number one contributor to overall job satisfaction. (Seewww.shrm.org/Research/ SurveyFindings/Documents/2015-Job- Satisfaction-and-Engagement-Report- Executive-Summary.pdf)

Did you know that unaddressed workplace conflicts waste, on average, eight hours of time spent on gossip and other unproductive, mission-draining activities? That calculation was made by Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High(See “How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts,” HR Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management). And other studies show that nonprofit sector employees have especially high expectations of their employers; they not only value fair treatment, they expect it. As stewards of both the mission of the nonprofit and its financial resources, nonprofit leaders arguably have moral, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities to address inevitable conflicts in the workplace.


The causes of workplace conflict are as diverse as the people who typically work in an organization. They include:

    • Misinterpreted intentions—Conflicts sometimes arise when one employee ascribes meaning or intent to the actions of another. From leaving someone off the list of meeting invitees, to assigning a plum project to a new, instead of veteran team member, many staff assume ill intentions lurk behind the possibly innocent actions of their peers or supervisors.
    • Diverse backgrounds—When colleagues bring different upbringings and life experiences to their work, the potential for creative solutions increases. But the likelihood of conflicting views increases as well.
    • Varied communication styles—Some team members prefer face-to-face or telephone conversations to ensure clarity around shared goals and the division of labor, while others believe that putting everything in a written email creates a helpful cyber trail of the conversation and commitments.

“…a logical first step in reducing the risk of unproductive conflict is to focus on fostering a culture that promotes open communication and healthy, well-managed conflict.”

  • Differing priorities—It would be a rare day in the life of a nonprofit if everyone on staff was in exact agreement about the priorities for the day, the week, the month or the fiscal year. Add to that differences of opinion about how the nonprofit should spend its financial resources.
  • Lack of trust—Some staff are naturally trusting, while others wait until a co-worker has earned their trust. Leaders may model trust by giving staff leeway and flexibility to accomplish important projects, or unknowingly dampen trust by micromanaging their direct reports.

While the issues above should create strength that fortifies a nonprofit mission, they too often lead to irreparable breakdowns, missed opportunities to collaborate, and suboptimal workplace morale. Together these issues create a dysfunctional workplace culture.


Certainly a collaborative, open culture can help prevent damaging disputes by encouraging nonprofit colleagues to discuss their disagreements directly and productively. So a logical first step in reducing the risk of unproductive conflict is to focus on fostering a culture that promotes open communication and healthy, well-managed conflict. Nurturing a culture that is good but could be better, may feel within reach. But how can leaders fix a culture that is broken or dysfunctional?

The research of Jay W. Lorsch and Emily McTigue at the Harvard Business School suggests that culture isn’t something leaders ‘fix.’ Instead, “cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges… The culture evolves as you do that important work.” (See “Culture Is Not the Culprit,” Harvard Business Review, April 2016.)


      1. Adopt an on open mind—instead of open door—policy. Although many nonprofit executives tout their ‘open door policy,’ many open door policies exist in name only. Too many execs who boast that their door is always open are perceived as disinterested, disconnected and unavailable by the staff who need really them. Instead of posting or boasting about an open door policy, strive to be the leader everyone wants to speak to. Keep your door—and your mind—truly open. Instead of waiting for staff to cross your office threshold, walk down the hall and across others’ thresholds to solicit ideas from everyone on your team.It’s human nature to want to be asked: “What do you think?” Be the learning, growing, evolving leader your mission needs, and not the know-it-all boss who tells people what to do and how to think.

“Every nonprofit mission needs the fuel and fire that dissent offers. When everyone is ‘on the same page’ or of like minds it may feel good, but there’s a big chance you’re missing an even bigger opportunity.”

    1. Invite dissent and teach your team how to disagree respectfully. The word dissent has an unfair, bad rap. The simple definition is: “holding opinions at variance with those previously, commonly or officially held.” Every nonprofit mission needs the fuel and fire that dissent offers. When everyone is ‘on the same page’ or of like minds it may feel good, but there’s a big chance you’re missing an even bigger opportunity. When a staff member dissents in an impolite manner, such as by saying, “that’s dumb,” give them an immediate chance to rephrase, such as “Wouldn’t it be fun if we tried the exact opposite…”
    2. Model trust by being the most trusting boss. Parenting experts say that children take their cues from what parents do, and not what they say. Grown up employees are the same. When a boss lives by the values of respect, kindness and trust, don’t be surprised when her direct reports do the same. To become the boss who trusts and inspires trust, try substituting detailed instructions about how to do something, with guidance and coaching about the important goals of a project. When an employee’s efforts fall short, or the team experiences failure, take time to talk about what was learned and how you’ll incorporate those lessons in the next project.
    3. Never, ever let hurt feelings fester. Wounded egos and hurt feelings never heal when they are buried or hidden. Feelings soon turn into actions, from ignoring a co-worker to deliberate sabotage. An employee who harbors resentment against others is incapable of doing their best work. No matter how they try, those feelings interfere with everything they do at work, and worse, those feelings accompany them home and may cause medical issues and sleep disturbances.As a leader, if you sense or hear about hurt feelings in the workplace, bring the parties together without delay. If necessary, explain that disagreeing about a substantive issue may be ok, but professionalism and being kind and respectful are required 100% of the time and it is never acceptable to ignore or sabotage a co-worker.


Employee Job Satisfaction Survey, Society for Human Resource Management

“How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts,” by Tamara Lytle, HR Magazine, SHRM

The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs, by Marcia Reynolds (Berrett-Koehler, 2014)

Critical Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (McGraw-Hill, 2011)

  1. Bring resource-related conflict to the forefront. Jealousy about the allocation of resources is the source of many workplace conflicts. In a recent Center engagement, we heard from some of the staff at our client that resources—including funding, office space and new positions—were unfairly allocated to certain functions. During our discussion with the senior leadership team, we heard that they were open to making investments throughout the organization, and that the complaining parties simply hadn’t made a case for additional resources.
  2. Coach, train and repeat. Few employees are naturally equipped to deal with the myriad conflicts that arise in the workplace. And if you’ve ever witnessed a poorly handled disagreement—employees yelling at each other or being openly disrespectful—it’s hard to imagine that was anyone’s intent. Just as we learn job skills by doing them, we also need practice to learn how to face up to conflict, nip hurt feelings in the bud, and reach common ground together.

The next time you sense conflict brewing at your nonprofit, bring your team together for a candid chat about nurturing productive dialogue. Your team may love the strategies described above, or they may bring other ideas to the table that better suit the cultural nuances of your nonprofit. Either way, address conflicts directly, in a timely fashion, and with respect to all the minds around the table. Try to ‘work it out’ like The Beatles, whose sage wisdom reminds us that—though it’s tough to resolve conflict—it’s far worse to “run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone…”

Melanie Herman is executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your questions and feedback atMelanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.