Preventing damaging conflict

Every management committee/board will face periods of conflict. This is not always a bad thing.

Healthy conflict, in which conflicting viewpoints are debated, can be of significant benefit to an organisation, if it is effectively managed. Creating a forum where decisions and approaches are open to challenge and new ideas can be constructively discussed is vital if the management committee/board is to provide effective leadership for the organisation. It enables the committee to be open and responsive to stakeholders, to adapt to change, to plan effectively for the future, and to regularly review and evaluate its own performance.

The benefit is that all members have ownership over the resulting action and decisions, because all have been encouraged to contribute to the process. This helps to strengthen their commitment to the organisation and their governance role.

Some of this material draws on NCVO's online guidance for trustees in England and Wales. It has been adapted for use here with their kind permission.

However, conflict can easily become damaging, affecting morale and restricting the committee/board's ability to provide effective leadership and governance for the organisation. There is no simple formula for preventing damaging conflict, but there are some measures that a committee/board can put in place and approaches that can be adopted in order to reduce the risk within their organisation

Reducing the risk

To reduce the risk of damaging conflict in your organisation, you should: 

  1. Ensure everyone understands their roles and relevant boundaries
  2. Ensure management committee/board members, staff and volunteers have a proper induction (and/or refresher training)
  3. Keep the committee focused on the organisation
  4. Put in place a code of conduct for management committee/board members
  5. Recruit (and train) a strong Chair
  6. Build team spirit
  7. Have effective procedures for committee renewal.

1. Define roles

Many conflicts within organisations are due to individuals infringing on another person's role or acting outside their authority. This can happen where individuals have multiple roles in the organisation (e.g. management committee member, service user and volunteer) and have difficulty differentiating between roles. It may also occur where an honorary officer or sub-committee make decisions or act without consulting the whole committee. In many organisations, the conflict is between the most senior staff member and the chair, where both are trying to lead the organisation.

In order to be able to do this, the management committee/board must itself have a clear understanding of their role and the division of responsibilities between the committee/board and staff/volunteers. More on division of roles.

Ensure that everyone involved in the organisation is clear regarding what is expected from them and the role that they should play. Any limitations to their authority and the relevant reporting, support and supervision mechanisms should be clearly defined, ideally in writing. Give consideration to circumstances where individuals wear multiple ‘hats' in the organisation and provide clear guidance on how they should reconcile these, ensuring they act appropriately to the relevant management structure. Establish clear mechanisms for regular and open communication between the committee and staff.

More advice on committee/staff conflict
More advice on effective delegation
More advice on developing role descriptions

2. Provide induction

Induction provides an opportunity for the relevant individual to quickly familiarise themselves with the mission and activities of the organisation and the roles played by others in achieving this. This enables them to make a more informed and effective contribution based on a shared understanding of the organisation, where it is going and who provides leadership.

Ensure that induction processes are adopted for all committee members, staff and/or volunteers. It may also be helpful when a committee member takes on a new role (e.g. as treasurer). Check that your staff/volunteer inductions include information regarding the role of the management committee/board and an opportunity to meet with at least some committee/board members.

How to induct new members

Checklist:  induction of new members

3. Keep the committee focused on the organisation

All management committee/board members should receive clear guidance on their responsibility to act with integrity at all times, according to Principle 6 of the Code of Good Governance:
"The management committee/board should view maintaining the integrity and interest of the organisation as a primary and overriding duty. They should act reasonably at all times in the interests of the organisation and of its present and future beneficiaries, users and/or members."
This requires members to put aside personal differences and work together to achieve the organisation's mission.

Members should be clear regarding the purpose or mission of the organisation. This should be part of the induction process for new members and should be regularly reiterated to help focus plans. It is also helpful to review this by devoting time to the process of strategic planning.

Members should have a sound understanding of their governance role in the organisation. Again this should be part of the induction process, but it may be helpful for the whole committee to refresh their understanding through training, discussion exercises or circulation of relevant resources (e.g. copies of the Code of Good Governance).

Members should be clear of their responsibility to abide by decisions which are taken, whether they agree with them or not. Dissenting opinions can be recorded in the minutes, but the committee has a collective responsibility for all decisions made.

4. Code of Conduct

A Code of Conduct provides management committee/board members with clear guidelines as to their standard of behaviour, responsibilities and best practice in fulfilling their obligations to the organisation. It can help address common challenges such as poor attendance, not preparing for meetings and dealing with conflicts of interest.

A Code provides clarity to committee/board members and can become an effective tool in calmly and effectively dealing with behaviours and actions which may otherwise help fuel conflict.

In order to be effective, your Code of Conduct should be accompanied by clear procedures for taking action if the Code is breached, and it should be consistently enforced by the Chair (or by the management committee/board in relation to the Chair).

5. Recruit (and train) a strong Chair

The chair can play a vital role in minimising and handling conflict within or involving the management committee/board. They should:

  • Provide leadership, ensuring the committee/board remains focused on the organisation and its mission
  • Provide appropriate support and supervision to committee/board members
  • Foster good relationships with the most senior staff member
  • Enforce the code of conduct
  • Effectively manage and chair discussions at meetings, to ensure healthy debate and discussion

The organisation should be prepared to invest in their Chair by providing them with appropriate support and/or training to enable them to carry out these roles effectively.

Chairing meetings

The role of the Chair during meetings can be decisive regarding whether conflict remains healthy or becomes destructive and damaging. There is a big difference between healthy conflict where differences of opinion are aired and conflicting viewpoints are debated, and quarrel or argument that harms the ability of the organisation to fulfil its mission.

The Chairperson should give consideration as to how they carry out their chairing role, how they can effectively manage the personalities or factions on their committee, and how discussion of each agenda item can be managed.

Here are some top tips for chairing meetings to keep conflict healthy:

  • Maintain control - Set out any time limits and keep to the agenda. 
  • Encourage full participation and freedom of expression. 
  • Draw out quieter members, but don't force people to contribute.
  • Discourage those who are monopolising the meeting.
  • Be tactful and sensitive to the feelings of members, making all feel valued
  • Steer members to work harmoniously and purposefully as a team, focused on the best interests of the organisation
  • Discourage any personal attacks or point scoring
  • Weigh up contributions impartially, summarising all points in favour against all points not in favour, to enable informed decision-making.
  • Agree the appropriate approach for committee decision-making on each item (i.e. consensus or voting)
  • Be willing to record dissenting opinions, but affirm that the final decision becomes the decision of the whole committee.
  • Keep calm!

Click here for more resources regarding the role of chairperson.

6. Build team spirit

Positive relations within the management committee/board and between the committee/board and staff or volunteers helps facilitate constructive management of conflict. The committee should consider how to cultivate effective team working. Some suggestions may include:

  • Group training, focused on agreed development needs
  • Strategic planning discussions, involving wider staff and volunteers, as appropriate to review the organisation's vision, mission and values and develop future plans
  • Opportunities for informal interaction - as simple as scheduling a coffee break at committee meetings, or plan a social evening with the option of including staff, volunteers and committee members.
  • Plan a hands-on volunteer event (e.g. redecorating a hall, tidying up the grounds etc)
  • Focus the committee on a goal (e.g. meeting a quality standard, such as the Code for Good Governance)

7. Have effective procedures for committee renewal

A committee/board that is not regularly refreshed through limits on terms of office may find itself powerless to deal with conflict caused by difficult individuals.

Some organisations, for example, find conflict arising where founding or long-serving members are at odds with new initiatives, committee member or staff. Often they see themselves as the guardians of the organisation's original vision and find it difficult to reassess this in light of a changing environment. Whilst the ability to understand the organisation over a longer period can be a valuable asset, the committee must at all times be able to make tough choices in the best interests of the organisation.

Others may simply be as a result of a personality clash, poor attendance or being habitually unprepared for meetings and therefore unable to contribute effectively.

In order to limit this type of conflict, the management committee/board should ensure that effective policies and practice are in place for its own renewal. These are often laid down in the governing documents. Once this becomes part of established practice, the management committee can review and renew its membership without offending existing members. Remember, some organisations may find it useful to retain valuable experience by creating advisory roles or groups for long-serving members.

More on committee renewal