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How Nonprofit Managers Can Transform Team Conflict Into Inspired Contribution

One of the keys to succeeding as a nonprofit manager is understanding how to temper conflicts that arise in your team. That doesn’t necessarily mean making them disappear—it means building enough trust with your people to transform tension into action. Where there’s conflict, there are opportunities for growth—and great ideas.  

“If your team is wrought with conflict and responds to each other in a tit-for-tat fashion, your department will be flying blind because no one trusts each other,” leadership expert Simon T. Bailey notes in the LinkedIn Learning course Leading through Relationships. “But you can change things and make it better.”

Inspired by Bailey’s course, use these three strategies to make team conflict more productive and challenge yourself to relate to people in your organization in new ways.

1. Proactively manage team conflicts

When a team is passionately dedicated to a cause, butting heads over the best way of doing things is an unavoidable (and often constructive) part of the work. Sometimes the tension dissipates on its own. Sometimes it can be productive, as you’ll see later. But sometimes, it requires the leader to step in and mediate. 

As a nonprofit manager, one of your responsibilities is to recognize and mitigate negative conflict. Since everyone reacts to conflict differently, start by assessing each person’s approach to problem solving, and don’t be afraid to adjust teams or shift assignments as needed. Maybe you have two employees who are approaching a problem in different ways. They both have noble intentions, but they’re butting heads instead of collaborating constructively. If you can figure out how people are wired, you can put the right people on the right problem at the right time. 

And if things don’t work out? When discontent starts brewing, address the root of the conflict immediately, with a human-to-human conversation. Instead of letting friction fester unaddressed, know when to insert yourself into the dialogue and ask questions that turn a disagreement into a teachable moment for the whole team. 

“If the leader doesn't address conflict quickly,”  Bailey says, “it sends a message to the rest of the team that negative behavior is okay.”

By learning how to reframe conflict as an opportunity for improvement, your teams will run more smoothly. As a bonus, you’ll be modeling great leadership, helping inspire the next generation of leaders at your organization.

2. Recognize times when friction is useful 

In Leading through Relationships, Bailey shares a story of a leader he worked for years ago who intentionally stirred up conflict in order to keep everyone on their toes and push the envelope to get the team to explore new ideas. His takeaway from the experience? “Great ideas come from disagreement.” 

While you don’t want to instigate unnecessary clashes among your team, you might consider testing this tactic sparingly to spark new ideas and help troubleshoot important issues that your nonprofit is facing. 

For instance, if you have people on opposite sides of an idea, you might take a step back and observe how a conflict unfolds organically, instead of trying to rush a resolution. As a leader, you have the space to briefly let things simmer to stimulate constructive debate. In doing so, you’ll encourage people to fight for their ideas, engage with opposing opinions in a civil way, and tap into the passions that brought them to your nonprofit in the first place.

According to Bailey, this kind of conflict can bring forth powerful ideas that can make a tangible impact on your organization’s future.

3. Turn critique into growth

Even the most well-intentioned criticism can be hard to swallow sometimes, but Bailey encourages leaders to embrace it. 

“The more critics you have, the more opportunities you have to grow as a leader,” he says. 

Instead of running away from negative comments and feedback, work on actively building relationships with those who come forward to share these thoughts. If you’re getting radio silence from your team, you may need to actively solicit feedback and ask questions to better understand their perspectives and use their critiques as an opportunity to improve your leadership skills. And if you hear that someone has feedback but isn’t comfortable approaching you, seek them out. In a private setting, give them permission to address their concerns directly with you, starting with a non-emotional invitation such as, “It’s come to my attention that you have some feedback I need to hear. I'd like to learn more.”

Once they’ve finished speaking, ask questions to get more context on how you can improve. Bailey says asking questions will stretch the critic because they have to back up their critique, and it will stretch you because you'll really start to see where you can do better. When you listen well and thank your critic for the input, you also open the door to ongoing productive dialogue—and deeper relationships within your organization.

For more advice on managing conflict effectively, watch Leading through Relationships with Simon T. Bailey. And to learn more about how LinkedIn Learning can help strengthen your management skills and support your team’s growth and development, speak to one of our nonprofit specialists