Dealing With Conflict: What To Do When...

Most management committees/boards have some sort of challenge with individual members. Here's some examples with ideas regarding how you can handle this effectively.

Remember! All committee members have a valuable role to play. The diversity of membership, with differing backgrounds, skill-sets, experience and personalities can be a source of strength for the organisation if effectively managed.

Conflicts with founders

The issue of founder board members is a recurring one and has to be handled sensitively. Founders naturally treat an organisation as their own and feel that only they are the true custodians of its values and mission. Consequently they tend to want to keep a firm grip on the organisation.

Founders have vision - that is why they set up the organisation in the first place. But their vision should be realised through the constitution, ethos and underlying principles of the organisation that they set up, not by exceeding the limits of their authority.

Founders may try to dominate the governance process by:

  • Making key decisions without referring them to the management committee/board.
  • Recruiting members who are too busy, weak or beholden to them to question their decisions
  • Withholding information from other members
  • Manipulating the management committee/board into giving power to smaller executive or policy committees, which they dominate.
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.

Remember! Founders have no special place in law. A founder should realise that once the organisation is formally constituted, they are bound by the constitution just like everyone else.

How to address conflict with founders

  • Recognise and respect past achievements and strategy when proposing new directions. Careful listening and discussion can help the founder move on. It can help the individual see that change is necessary and help them see how their dream lives. Appreciate their experience and encourage them to apply this to planning within the changed environment.
  • Organisational values, the constitution and the legal duties of members should always prevail. Make sure that the founder understands the boundaries of their role. This can be tackled by discussing and developing role descriptions and a Code of Conduct for all members, or tabling a review discussion of what is already in place.
  • A difficult founding chair is especially tricky. Sound out the other members and identify sympathetic ones to support you in challenging their behaviour. It is often best to address this by ensuring correct and appropriate procedures are adopted and implemented in order to limit their ability to dominate the governance process, rather than tackling the individual directly.
  • Review their continued role and contribution. Is there another way in which the founder can be involved in the organisation other than as a board member? Could they contribute in an advisory capacity? Does the original governing document limit terms of office of board members (including founder members)? What options exist to let a founder go without too much pain? 

Committee/Staff Conflict

Conflict between the most senior staff member (chief executive or director) and the management committee or its chair often arises because of:

  1. A lack of clarity about roles and boundaries
  2. Inadequate communication.

The role of the Management Committee, in broad terms, is to lead, direct and ensure the organisation operates effectively. Conversely, the role of the staff is to manage, implement and carry out work that helps the organisation achieve its mission/overall purpose.

However, as many voluntary organisations start out with few or no staff, management committee members may be accustomed to taking a more hands-on role. (For example: a committee member may also be a volunteer on the organisation's helpline service.) This can create problems in relation to line management and decision-making authority.

The relationship between the most senior staff member and chair can be particularly difficult, as the exact line drawn between management and governance is often particular to the organisation and may change over time. A new staff member, accustomed to a different way of working, may find it difficult to adjust. Likewise, where the organisation's founder becomes the Director, they may feel resentful of a management committee/board who changes the strategic direction.

How to tackle

  • The Management Committee must set out what it sees as the responsibilities of staff or volunteers and the limits of delegated decision-making authority. Always keep in mind the essential distinction between governance and management.
  • Ensure clear, effective and regular lines of communication between the Chair and the most senior staff member. Remember, the Chair is usually responsible for providing regular support and supervision to the most senior staff member.
  • Ensure the management committee provide clear and effective strategic planning, in consultation with the staff
  • Ensure operational plans are approved by the management committee/board, even where developed by staff, and that the committee receive and consider regular reports against these. 
  • Provide opportunities for management committee and staff to meet on a formal and informal basis. 
  • Ensure information regarding the role of the management committee is included in staff induction packs.
  • Develop guidelines for management committee members who are also volunteers or beneficiaries of the organisation, to ensure they are clear which ‘hat' they are wearing.

More on Committee/Staff relations

More on managing staff and volunteers

Dealing with factions

Factions often develop where the committee is split over a significant decision or strategy. The management committees of voluntary/community organisations are often strongly value-based and may each be convinced that their stance is in the best interests of the organisation. Unfortunately this may increase the intensity of the conflict. Disputes may be in relation to a new initiative, strategy or even the appointment selection of a key staff member or chair.

How to tackle

  • Consider whether there are reasonable options available that could reach some accommodation with the views of both factions (the win-win approach).
  • Consider how the committee/board conducts its strategic planning. Do they encourage full and free expression? Are all members encouraged to contribute? Are conflicting opinions openly voiced and sensitively considered? Does the committee make effort to accommodate concerns raised regarding their plans? 
  • Consider how decision-making is conducted. It is important to be clear regarding how decisions are to be reached on governance matters (whether by consensus or voting) and that any delegated decision-making authority is clarified in writing with appropriate reporting mechanisms. Your governing document may provide specific rules on these matters.
  • Remind members that they are bound by the decision of the committee, even where they disagree, and must continue to carry out with integrity their responsibilities to act in the best interests of the organisation. Highlight the damage that can be caused to the organisation by such factional conflict.

Dealing with inner circles

Another type of factional conflict is the creation of an inner circle: a small number of management committee/board members who control decision-making and refuse to delegate. Every member should have the same power as another and none should be excluded.

Inner circles are often created to ensure the group's own agenda is achieved without opposition, interference or challenge. Frequently they reveal a split between old and new members, where they are reluctant to spend time and energies reconciling the conflicting viewpoints regarding the best approach. This means that the concerns, views and skills of the excluded members are not being harnessed to the benefit of the organisation.

Remember! This may not always be intentional. Sometimes these groups develop from a perception of who is willing and available to give additional time. Others are so focused on achieving their objectives within limited time available, that they find it more efficient to work with certain key individuals in making progress.

How to tackle

  • Conduct a skills analysis for the committee. This helps to make everyone aware of the range of skills and experience available within the group and may encourage more even involvement.
  • Review induction processes. Are new members sufficiently up to speed and able to contribute? Are existing members given the opportunity to meet with them informally?
  • Clarify authority for delegated tasks, decision-making and reporting. Which decisions need to be authorised by the whole committee?
  • Clarify decision-making processes for committee matters as a whole. Check what your governing document says regarding use of consensus, voting and meeting quorum.
  • Introduce/enforce a code of conduct for members
  • Ensure your committee procedures enable a sensible turnover of members.
  • Consider outside help for more serious problems or for mediation

Managing challenging behaviours

Sometimes the behaviours of certain individuals can threaten to destabilise the harmonious workings of a committee. Here's just a few to look out for, with ideas of what can be done.

Member who acts unilaterally 

  • Clarify limits of authority for delegated tasks or roles, decision-making and reporting. Which decisions need to be authorised by the whole committee? Provide this in writing, approved by the whole committee.
  • Review roles and responsibilities of committee members. Reiterate the collective responsibility of the management committee/board.
  • Introduce/enforce a code of conduct for members

Member who doesn't attend, doesn't contribute

  • Contact the individual to confirm the reasons for non-attendance (could be a short-term personal or work challenge)
  • Check what your governing document says regarding required attendance.
  • Introduce/enforce a code of conduct for members - ensure it includes attendance levels required and specifies actions to be taken if breached
  • Review how you provide induction - do you provide a written description of roles and responsibilities
  • Ensure your committee procedures enable a sensible turnover of members.

More on dealing with poor attendance

Member who is volatile, speaks out of turn or monopolises meetings

  • Agree a ‘group contract' that governs how meetings and discussions are run, to clarify expected behaviours. Establish an agreed approach for each agenda item, making clear when an individual makes an uninterrupted presentation and when items are open for discussion.  (More on running effective meetings)
  • Ensure your chairperson has effective skills in chairing meetings (click here for top tips) or is given access to appropriate training. The chairperson has a vital role in managing contributions from all attendees.
  • Reiterate the importance of all members being able to contribute.

Member who pursues outside agenda

  • Introduce/enforce a code of conduct for members, including a conflict of interests policy. Ensure this has agreed procedures for actions to be taken if breached.
  • Clarify the role of the relevant member. Sometimes this situation arises where a member is appointed as a representative of another organisation. Remind members of their responsibility as management committee members to act solely in the best interests of this organisation. 
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