The media was abuzz this past week over #TheDress that nearly broke the Internet with 16 million views in six hours. Whether you see #TheDress as black and blue or white and gold, it was a great reminder of how humans innately process the same information differently. That millions of people can disagree over something seemingly simple, like a photo of a dress, speaks volumes to how we can have divergent views over more complex situations. In the social sector, where disagreements are sometimes avoided to maintain congeniality, #TheDress can be a good conversation starter on how we approach conflict in our own organizations.

the dress

As leaders in the social sector, it is important to remember that not only does our team perceive our decisions and actions differently, but they also respond to conflict in different ways. Silence does not mean everyone is on board. If our priority is to have an open organization where staff members are empowered to challenge decisions for the greater good, then as leaders we need to encourage diverse viewpoints. Learning how individual members manage conflict, coaching them to try new approaches and providing a safe space to practice dissent can go a long way. When someone disagrees with a management decision, their responses can take many forms, and if we attune ourselves to these mechanisms, we can start to push individuals to share their perceptions in constructive ways:

Active vs. Passive 2

One of the common hurdles many of us in the social sector face in dealing with conflict is ourselves. We care so much about how others feel that we are tempted to accommodate or avoid issues rather than create momentary uncomfortable situations. While there are times when it is appropriate to choose our battles, there are other times where we need to hit pause on nonprofit nice to get it right.  Our teams can use these scenarios as litmus tests to assess whether their perceptions warrant discussion:

  • When an action seems inconsistent with laws, ethics, management practices or company values
  • When something is said or done that will affect how people work together
  • When an action will affect our donors and partners
  • When an action will affect those we serve
  • When an action is clouded by “ego thinking
  • When a decision is upheld after the circumstances driving it have changed

Another way to help spark discussion and safely encourage dissent is by assigning one person to serve as “devil’s advocate,” arguing against proposed ideas to reveal their possible weaknesses.

Although talking about how decisions can affect our teams and people we serve takes more time and creates discomfort, the potential reward is high. Our staff will feel valued that their voices were heard; our teams will be more satisfied with the final decision, even if they disagree; and our clients will be better served. Share some of the ways you encourage dissent in your organization, and join us next week when we discuss customer engagement.

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