Human Resources

Resolving Conflict


This section discusses conflicts and disputes that can arise in community organisations, and looks at ways of minimising or resolving them in a fair and open manner. Informal and formal conflict resolution procedures are described.

Two women discussing finance

Conflict and its causes

Many people try to avoid conflict at all costs. Others tend to blame someone or something else for causing it. These responses do not resolve conflict and may make the situation worse.

Conflict is a normal part of life and there are many issues that could cause conflicts to arise within community organisations. Conflict can occur between employees, committee members, ordinary members, volunteers, clients or the community.

If not resolved, conflict can be highly destructive. However, committees can take steps to minimise potential situations of conflict before they arise or to resolve conflict constructively. The following sections discuss five of the most common factors that lead to conflict situations within organisations.


Conflict can arise from misunderstandings about:

  • The nature, aims and objectives of a job
  • Differing expectations about how things should be done
  • Work conditions and wages
  • The different responsibilities of management and employees
  • Differences in values, beliefs, needs, or priorities

Poor communication

Communication relies on clear and complete messages being sent as well as being received. Problems can be reduced by paying attention to how well you send messages and how well you receive them. Both managers and workers are responsible for ensuring that these issues are considered. There are many ways to improve information flow and communication. Here are some suggestions:

  • Keep message books/day books
  • Keep policy books which include all policies as decided at meetings
  • Hold regular staff/management meetings for passing on information
  • Have frequent employee meetings
  • Ensure correspondence is available for everyone to see
  • Distribute minutes of all meetings promptly and widely
  • Ensure there is clarity about what the objectives are and about what decisions have been made
  • Ensure decisions are implemented
  • Give everyone time to talk at meetings
  • Try to spend twice as much time listening as you spend talking.

Unclear communication from staff to clients is another common source of conflict. It is vital that “house rules” are written down for clients, and that there are no variations in the interpretation of those rules. Distressed clients can very quickly become confused and angry if they feel that they are not being listened to – especially by those who say they care.

Lack of planning

Lack of planning often means an organisation moves from one crisis to the next. This sense of disorganisation and lack of direction can be stressful and can create many problems including misunderstandings. The time spent in planning will be recouped many times over in the more efficient use of workers’ time, and in real and long-term benefits to clients.

Poor staff selection

Inappropriate selection of staff can result in ill-feeling and conflict. Feelings of ill-will may be increased by dismissing staff members.

While staff conflict problems can never be entirely avoided, they can be minimised with good staff selection procedures. Considering existing staff views when approaching staff selection will help minimise conflicts in the workplace.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see Chapter 5: Volunteers, in this manual.

Frustration, stress and burnout

When people become frustrated or stressed they are more irritable and more likely to create conflicts than at other times. It is important to recognise the signs of stress in people’s work situations in order to prevent burnout. Try to help people identify the causes of work related stress, and take steps to change these factors or, better still, try to anticipate possible causes of stress before they arise. These factors could include:

  • Threats of violence or actual violence
  • Overcrowding or lack of privacy
  • Verbal abuse
  • Dirty or untidy work space
  • Noise
  • Harassment
  • Continual crises
  • Lack of ability to influence the working environment
  • Tension between staff members
  • Lack of direction from management
  • Criticism and lack of support
  • Poor communication

Preventing Conflict

Good managers will realise that conflict and disputes are part of a healthy organisation. However, good managers will also adopt some of the following practices in order to avoid potential and unnecessary conflict:

  • Conducting conflict resolution workshops
  • Re-arranging hours and shifts
  • Job sharing
  • Making use of volunteers
  • Planning sessions to clarify aims and directions and delegating tasks to various staff members
  • Meditation or relaxation
  • Offering time off in lieu within one week of accruing it
  • Conducting regular assessments and reviews
  • Carrying out regular and structured evaluations
  • Preparing an induction package for new workers
  • Encouraging peer review at every level
  • Allowing views to be expressed and listening to those views
  • Creating private, clean and quiet work spaces
  • Giving continual support and encouragement
  • Regularly reviewing organisational aims and objectives

A Creative Approach

It is possible to resolve conflicts so that all sides win. This “creative” approach requires conflict resolution to be seen as a joint problem solving exercise rather than a battle. If this “win-win” approach is adopted, conflicts may be resolved more quickly and easily than expected.

Don’t wait for conflict to build up in an organisation. Make it a ground rule to deal with conflict immediately as it is much easier to find solutions to a conflict when it first develops.

The technique known as “mapping the conflict” is about clarification and examination of the underlying needs, feelings, fears and anxieties of those involved in a conflict situation.

The following is one example of how the technique can work. Imagine that a particular women’s refuge is having a problem. During school holidays employees usually bring their children to work with them. Jill has worked at the refuge for 18 months and, like other employees, brings her children with her during the holidays. However, during the last vacation there has been continual fighting between her children and resident children. The mothers have become involved in defending the actions of their children while other employees are starting to take sides.

Everyone agrees the situation has become difficult. Accusations are being made and negative feelings have become a feature in the refuge. The employees call a meeting of residents and staff in an effort to sort out the problem. It ends in a screaming match, with three people in tears and one person storming off.

Step 1 – Facilitate

  • The employees ask someone to act as facilitator (a person who is seen as neutral in the conflict or an outsider – they don’t necessarily have to be skilled in conflict resolution).
  • The facilitator sets the scene by talking positively about conflict, explaining “win/win” solutions rather than “win/lose”. Everyone is encouraged to feel the conflict can be resolved.

Step 2 – Mapping

  • The facilitator then draws “a map” of the conflict using a white board or butchers paper with the circumstances or features which prompted the conflict summarised in the most neutral way possible. The careful use of language that is not inflammatory or judgmental is very important.
  • The main people involved in the conflict are listed with their needs and concerns written next to their names. The following issues are important.
    • Make sure you list only the needs and concerns which are relevant to the conflict
    • Map the needs and concerns of the main people involved first, then consider other people who are not obvious in the conflict but have become involved in the situation
    • For the minor parties, list only their main need or concern. This process helps everyone to understand the emotional climate underlying the conflict.

Step 3 – Discussion

  • The map is then discussed. Areas of agreement where people have listed the same needs become obvious very quickly. People are able to see the feelings and concerns beneath the conflict, and to assess whether any are ill founded. This helps to ease the tension, and solutions become easier to recognise, with one or two usually standing out. A map of the conflict would show that:
  • Most people want to resolve the conflict
  • Most people have concerns, many of which are unfounded – the residents fear retaliation; Jill fears she’ll lose her job
  • The solutions appear to lie in dealing with needs of employees (especially Jill) for suitable child care during school holidays

Step 4 – Solutions

The search for solutions can be brainstormed by everybody. A list of possible solutions might include:

  • No employees’ children are allowed at refuge (except for emergencies)
  • Jill takes extra holidays during school holiday time
  • The children of employees and residents are kept separated
  • The refuge agrees to help Jill find alternative child care and will negotiate with local Vacation Care Programs, etc
  • Everyone works at getting the children to relate better

Some of these possible solutions might be acceptable, others not, but this list is worked through until a solution is found that suits everyone. Once the conflict is put on paper the areas of agreement are obvious and this helps to encourage people to compromise on disagreements. This process also gives space and importance to expressing feelings. This in itself helps people to feel better about their involvement.

The group now has control of the conflict, rather than the conflict having control over them.

Step 5 – Policy Making

  • Once you have found solutions, it may be necessary to make a policy or a change in structure to prevent problems happening again in the future.
  • In the case of our example it may mean writing a policy about how and when an employee’s children are allowed in the refuge. This should be done in an open forum (which includes Jill) and with a spirit that has no suggestion of blame or fault.

Step 6 – Trial Period

  • Evaluate your solution to make sure it is practical and really works. The best way to do this may be to try it out for a fixed time period, and then review whether it has solved the problem.
  • If managers initiate a conflict mapping process, they must be prepared to implement the outcomes of that process or will risk inflaming the conflict and enmeshing management in the conflict.

Managing Internal Conflict

This section focuses on disputes that occur internally, such as those within management bodies and those between staff and management. Another chapter of this manual outlines how to develop dispute management procedures to deal with breaches of consumer’s rights or consumer responsibilities.

The following steps outline how to develop formal procedures for working through internal conflicts within a community organisation.

Step 1 – Policy

Ask lots of questions and consult with staff, clients and other organisations before you decide on and formally adopt rules or policies regarding how disputes will be managed in your organisation. Write these down and make it widely known that these are the procedures to follow if and when a conflict arises. You may decide to include some of the following ideas:

  • Disputes and conflict will be dealt with immediately
  • Time must be made at management meetings, staff meetings or staff/client meetings to deal with disputes, or alternatively arrangements should be made to call a special meeting when required
  • Disputes are dealt with at meetings according to agreed procedures
  • The consumers of the service are protected at all times from the effects of the dispute
  • Complaints or grievances from people involved in the organisation are raised and dealt with, within the organisation as comprehensively as possible
  • Decisions are always made keeping in mind the best interests of consumers and the organisation as a whole
  • An outside, neutral person/facilitator will be called in to work with the group to solve the dispute if all parties involved agree.

Step 2 – Operation

Once you have decided on some policy guidelines for conflict, you will need to decide on how you put these into practice. Here are three possible options that can be used:

  • “Conflicts” can become a regular management committee meeting agenda item, giving a formal opportunity to raise issues. Alternatively, conflicts can be automatically referred to a management committee special meeting which can be set up to deal with them as soon as they occur. These meetings deal with the issues according to agreed policies and procedures.
  • A disputes contact person is identified who is acceptable and accessible to everyone in the service. Their role can be limited to acting as first point of contact, or can encompass a wider role. This person may attempt to resolve the dispute, but whatever is finally decided needs to be ratified or agreed to by the entire management committee.
  • A Disputes Sub-Committee is set up by the management committee. In a similar fashion to the contact person referred to above, this sub-committee has strict terms of reference and acts according to agreed policies and procedures. When attempting to resolve a dispute, the subcommittee can be authorised either to make decisions or to make recommendations which would be agreed on by the whole management committee at a later date.

Step 3 – Process

Once the policy framework has been set up detailing the broad rules for dealing with conflicts, then establish some procedures that the sub-committee, management committee or the contact person will follow. Establish these to best suit your organisation, and include the basic principles of justice. The following issues need to be considered for inclusion:

  • Fair and clear warnings
  • Clear communication
  • Clear and democratic decision making
  • Appropriate time limits for whatever you decide.

To develop procedures to deal with internal disputes, consider these questions:

  • How is contact to be made by those involved in the dispute/complaint?
  • Is it verbal or in writing?
  • When is contact to be made regarding a dispute or complaint?
  • Who is involved in the first attempt to resolve the dispute?
  • How is this to be achieved?
  • Does this involve all parties – and if so, together or separately?
  • What are the possible outcomes of this first attempt to resolve the dispute? These might be written or verbal warnings, compromises, written and signed contracts, recommended action or changes to policy.
  • How are changes to be reviewed at the end of the set period?
  • If the first attempt to resolve the dispute fails entirely, what is involved in the second attempt to resolve the dispute?
  • How is the second attempt conducted?
  • What are the possible outcomes of this second attempt to resolve the dispute?
  • What appeal structure should be set up, if required?
  • Set out your formal process clearly in writing. Your process might look something like the following example.

If a dispute arises:

  • The staff are authorised by the contact person, sub-committee or committee to make the first attempt to resolve it and a date (2 weeks) is established to see whether it has been solved.
  • If the review (by sub-committee, contact person or committee) shows that it is not resolved, the second attempt to resolve the dispute is dealt with by the contact person, or the sub-committee or the management committee representatives.
  • If still unresolved, the dispute is taken to the management committee at a general or special meeting for a decision.
  • Appeals can occur within the wider management committee and involving outside representatives if any of the parties desire.

The Queensland Government operates a Dispute Resolution Branch providing trained mediators who can help parties involved in a dispute to reach a settlement that is satisfactory to them all. The mediators act as a neutral third party, clarifying the issues, keeping the discussion on course, and ensuring that everyone gets a chance to make their point.

Mediators do not give advice or pass judgment, and they will help the parties put an agreement in writing so its terms are clear.

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