Nonprofit 411: Workplace Conflict – Is It Always Just About the People?

by Janet Grogan, The Mediation GroupJanet Grogan

The times we live in seem to be exacerbating tensions in the workplace. Hostilities seem to be more overt; they are certainly often more public. Diagnosing the real nature of a conflict when it arises and ensuring that the right intervention is applied is crucial to preventing a continuing burn that could explode in the future. But this is easier said than done for a number of reasons:

  • The web of laws and regulations that govern many workplace processes can be difficult to untangle and apply to any given situation. They overlap, sometimes contradict, and often confuse.
  • Our nonprofit cultures are complex. We are proudly mission-driven, motivated by what ought to be but frustrated by what is.  We often make assumptions about shared values and feel betrayed when we learn that sometimes they are not.
  • We have limited resources and less latitude to use resources to help with things that are not direct program delivery.
  • Making any kind of change is hard. It is hard for us as individual human beings to alter behaviors and beliefs acquired over time.  It is just as hard for an organization to make changes in the way it operates.

Because finding the right solution is hard, what often happens when tensions or conflicts arise is that either it is ignored in the hope that it will resolve and go away, or, the solution applied is based on the symptoms presented rather than the underlying issue.

For example, Brian, a supervisor at a community-based organization, is upset with his employee, Mayra.  He had given her a directive NOT to do X, and she did it anyway. From his perspective, she has been blatantly insubordinate, and he issues a formal written warning. An upset Mayra files a complaint about Brian. Issuing a warning is not an illogical response to an act of insubordination – but, what was that “insubordination” about?

In an in-house meeting, a neutral probed Mayra’s understanding of the directive and her thought process that led her to do X. It turned out that, while Mayra’s thought process was different from Brian’s, it was not without its own merit, and resulted, in part from Brian’s way of communicating his directive, as well as from some confusion and overlap in their respective authority and mandate to carry out certain aspects of their department’s job. Brian realized that Mayra didn’t simply “defy” him, Mayra realized that she needed to ask more questions, and they both realized that they needed to do some work to clarify roles and responsibilities.

The organization learned a few crucial lessons about handling workplace conflict:

  • It’s not always “just” interpersonal. There are almost always ways in which the organization’s history, structure, systems and culture contribute (as in the lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities in the example).
  • Good listeners and problem solvers need to take the time to delve thoroughly into the issue, to listen to everyone involved and understand their perspectives, and to analyze the organizational contribution.
  • Once solutions are proposed, they need to be monitored to see how and if they are working – and adjusted as needed.
  • Solutions need to match the organization’s resources. If a manager would benefit from professional coaching, but the organization can’t afford it, other options must be developed to help that manager.

And, of course, there are times when a conflict really may be just about the people and should be dealt with as such. Just be sure to look beneath the surface before you decide!


Janet Grogan is a senior consultant with The Mediation Group. Previously the head of HR for the Massachusetts Port Authority, Janet has developed HR policy, conducted training, facilitated and implemented strategic planning and has a track record of mediating disputes and creating effective solutions for internal resolution. Contact her at