Top tool for managing conflict in your nonprofit


Not all conflict is bad.

As a matter of fact, robust debate and creating a safe place to explore and wrestle with differences is essential to the health of your organization.

Think of cholesterol. There’s the good kind and the bad kind.

First…The Bad Kind.

At best, conflict can be a nuance. Despite it, the organization keeps moving forward. Then it builds up and festers. Ick.

Is it mean-spirited? Are there personal attacks? Do people put on a happy face or façade to avoid the conflict?

Conflict can be the downfall of a vulnerable nonprofit preventing it from raising adequate money, providing quality services, and controlling turnover.

Yes, unmanaged conflict can be destructive.

Here are a few questions to assess your situation:

  • Is conflict getting in the way of your productivity?
  • Does it impact your mental health?
  • What about the quality of your work or the person or group that is in conflict?
  • Does it inhibit the relationships between the board and staff?
  • Worst of all…are you at risk of losing donors?

If you are experiencing conflict in your organization, would you characterize it as the good kind or the bad kind?

There’s a lot written about encouraging good conflict in the spirit of making the very best decisions for your organization. You can start reading about it here with a summary of Patrick Lencioni’s work, the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.

Here is a new development on building effective teams brought to us by Google.


The Top Tool for Managing Conflict in your Nonprofit

Why reinvent the wheel? Let Google spend an insane amount of money collecting data and figuring it out for the rest of us.

They did just that in their 4-year+ exhaustive study that is revealed in Charles Duhigg’s New York Times article What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.

For the record, effective teams are masters at managing conflict. The findings are straightforward and not what anyone expected.

They discovered that all effective teams have 2 qualities: 1) psychological safety and 2) social sensitivity.

Psychological safety is a simple concept. It means that ALL team members need to feel safe enough to speak up without negative consequences.

Each person in the room needs to be comfortable being vulnerable in the group. That means admitting when they’re wrong or acknowledging when they screwed up. Most importantly, the leader needs to model it.

Social sensitivity is about empathy. The leader and team members need to recognize when someone in the room is angry, quiet, sad, or any other emotion that is getting in their way of their participation.

Isolated young business woman ignoring

So how do you go about creating psychological safety and social sensitivity in your nonprofit? Or anywhere for that matter.

It’s all about creating the RIGHT group norms.

Group norms is considered a tool. A living one that is straightforward and takes time, commitment and perseverance to get right.

So how can you create group norms with your board or staff? Make it a project. Set time aside at a board meeting or retreat and dig in.

Make sure they read Charles Duhigg’s article or another one that explains the study in advance. There are lots of examples for norms to get your board’s juices flowing.

Here is Seth Godin’s Manifesto on Small Teams doing Important Work. You’ll love it. Here’s another one from Harvard Business Review on building the emotional intelligence of groups.

Resources are abundant in the areas of emotional intelligence and team building. They all agree that beginning with group norms is the ticket.

What norms have worked well in your nonprofit’s board room?


Tricia Dell is a fundraising coach, facilitator, and strategist for nonprofit organizations. Learn more at and follow her on twitter @triciadell.

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