Why address the issue of intraorganisational conflict in ICSOs?

See The Upside of Conflict, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2019

Motivating passion. The passion and commitment that drive the International Civil Society Organisations (ICSO) community can be a source of great strength, but can also fuel destructive clashes. If the conditions are right and there are ways to “channel” these passions, passion engages people and creates enormous forward momentum. But if the conditions are not right, it can lead to toxic, dysfunctional relationships, and dysfunctional or under functioning organisations. These “passions,” that drive individuals are an enormous, largely untapped potential in the sector and it is becoming increasingly more urgent to tap these sources of difference and strength.

It is anticipated that growing turbulence in operating environments for international civil society organisations(ICSO) will increase organisational stress and troubles.  However, little is known about their capability to translate internal conflict into positive organisational outcomes.  An original empirical study therefore investigated the profile and origins of intra-organisational conflict and the extent to which they are a source of innovation and capacity improvement associated with for-profit enterprises.  This series of pages presents the major findings of this study.  Conclusions include: ICSOs exhibit behavioural sensibilities, such as mission-passion, as well as internal pre-dispositions that work against realizing the gains that intra-organisational conflict could offer.  For functional conflicts to enhance performance conditions must be right, which is seldom in play.  Suggestions for what this can mean in terms of remedy to establish a healthy conflict perspective (HCP) are provided, which will require testing by action research.

Can ICSOs capitalize on conflict? An exploratory workshop with staff of large ICSOs, our collective experience and practical observations provided a working hypothesis that conflict is intrinsic in the organisational experience of ICSOs, but hard/functional and soft/cultural conditions within them seldom enable the potential benefits inherent in conflict to be gained.  However, should they so commit, ICSOs can capitalize on conflict in ways that need to be tailored to their missions and circumstances.  Effective organisational responses to conflict in ICSOs will not be a cut and paste from for-profits, but they can adopt some relatively simple concepts to make the needed changes in their organisations and benefit from conflict.  One benefit that we believed likely for ICSOs was that conflict competence, or working effectively with conflict, would help them better respond to disruptive forces.  Additionally, we believe that there has, until now, been almost no information about or a coherent picture of conflict in ICSO community.

Can views of conflict change? Views about conflict in the ICSO sector appear to mirror the beliefs about organisational conflict prevalent in the mid-twentieth century and have not developed in line with more recent philosophies. Rahim (2001) describes three philosophies about organisational conflict that have developed over time: 1) the early view of conflict as negative (conflict should be eliminated); followed by 2) the fact that conflict is inevitable and occasionally beneficial and finally; (3) the interactionist/pluralist view (that views conflict as a positive factor that can improve
the organisation’s  performance).

Viewing the benefits of conflict. Conflict management is a precondition for collaboration within organizations (Hong and Ravendran, 2015: 2-3).  Task conflict has been shown to be positively linked to performance while relationship conflict is negatively associated with performance. Relationship conflict increases the cognitive load and therefore decreases the ability to think flexibly, effectively diverting human resources. The for-profit literature goes on to posit that functional conflict has potential benefits for an organization.

In our view, conflict needs to be appreciated as a selective mechanism in organisational ecology that, if properly managed, establishes a necessary capacity for adaptation, with implications for management. Clashes between parties within the organisation need to be appreciated as the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs are made among competing objectives. An emphasis on ‘like-minded’ consensus-seeking behavior rather than ‘polite’ open disagreement impedes effective problem solving. Consequently, senior executives need to embrace conflict and, just as important, institutionalize systems for addressing it.

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