Dealing With Career And Management Conflicts In Nonprofit Organizations

  • A social justice advocacy organization is stung by accusations from some of its staff that the leadership doesn’t “walk the walk” when it comes to racial and sex bias. Complaints also include that the organization’s mission has become too diffuse.  Anger and resentment build.
  • A public interest research organization discovers that shared staff commitment to consumer protection doesn’t preclude staff relationship conflicts or complaints about management practices. “We all believe in what we’re doing,” the Director tells me, “so we shouldn’t be having these kinds of problems.”
  • A social service organization is faced with apparent emotional disturbance of a senior staff member. Increasing amounts of management time are spent trying to deal with the person’s declining performance, absenteeism, and behavior toward coworkers. The Executive Director is unsure how to deal with the problem, and asks me “How do we balance compassion with the needs of our agency, in situations like these?”

Sound familiar? I have observed many nonprofit organizations trying to carry out their public interest or social service missions effectively – but within a workplace and cultural environment that gives rise to problems like these.  Such problems reflect an increasingly common, interwoven mixture of personal and organizational conflicts.  Many are similar to those I find in for-profit companies.  But the unique circumstances of nonprofit groups makes knowing what helps – and what doesn’t – critical to maintaining their internal and external success.

Several new circumstances contribute to this blend of personal and organizational conflicts that nonprofits deal with today. First, they face increasing competition for shrunken financial support in the new economic climate.  Some may operate within a political and social culture that’s hostile to their mission.

As a result, nonprofits feel increasingly pressured to utilize management and fiscal practices from the for-profit realm. These strategies are both helpful and necessary. But they can create new, confusing conflicts for the organization as well, as it attempts to remain true to its mission and values.  Business-oriented strategies can also create confusion for staff, many of whom were attracted to the organization’s ideals, but also may be motivated by career and personal goals which conflict with these ideals.

There’s more: Nonprofits often assume that because they’re committed to socially useful missions, they’re immune to staff or management conflicts or to conflicts about career values.  But they’re wrong. No organization today is immune to forces within the larger society, of which every workplace is a part.

People who may be attracted to missions concerning economic or social justice nevertheless want to be treated justly by their bosses.  Moreover, people who have entered the midlife adult years, from about 35 onward, become concerned about building meaning and purpose in their lives, establishing integration between their work and nonwork lives, as well as concerns about their financial security in these turbulent times. Women and minorities expect equality and respect to be practiced on the job, not just talked about as principles.

All of these issues directly affect a person’s mental health, work relationships, and creative energy in the workplace, often more so in nonprofit organizations because of the explicit ideals embodied in the organization’s purpose and mission.

What Doesn’t Help

Successful dealing with these problems requires simultaneous actions: Creative efforts that build and maintain organizational success. Support of learning and development among staff.  And, joining the ideals embodied in the external mission with positive management behavior internally.

But two responses likely to fail include going the route of traditional organizational consultation; or simply referring a troubled person to any mental health practitioner.  Because the problems I have described tend to be interwoven, piecemeal efforts are not effective.  They may be too narrow in scope, and can even make matters worse.

For example, most management and organizational consultants don’t share the same values with nonprofits, especially those engaged in advocacy-oriented or ideologically committed causes. This often produces a clash between recommendations and the organization’s stated values or mission.  Charges about “selling out” the mission for the sake of organizational efficiency often result.

And when a person is overtly troubled on the job, most mental health professionals are unable to distinguish conflicts that are a situational response to the workplace from those originating within the person, independent of work. This blind spot has consequences for how effective the treatment will be.

When I began studying the link between careers and emotional conflict a few decades ago, this lack of understanding was the norm. Today, unfortunately, it hasn’t improved much. Most therapists still lack sufficient understanding and training about how the workplace culture, career conflicts, and minority or gender issues interact with and impact a person’s emotional issues – exacerbating old ones, masking existing conflicts, or creating new ones.

In short, neither traditional “OD” consultants nor most mental health professionals possess the blended expertise and experience necessary for dealing with this mixture of organizational and personal conflicts.

What Does Help

In my work over the years with nonprofit organizations, and how they contrast with conflicts among for-profit companies, I’ve found that the first step is a commitment to self-examination by leaders and managers .  That is, examining openly the gap between the values and ideals embodied in the mission, and those embodied in how they actually interact and manage within the organization.

Many nonprofits ignore this gap, or think it is irrelevant; often more so, in my experience, than their counterparts in for-profit companies.  Then, they become surprised when they’re accused of contradictions between their management practices and the values embodied by the organization’s mission in the outside world.

So, the first step for leadership — the most obvious but most important: become aware of these issues, these gaps, and face what you want to do about them.  Awareness of the source of problems opens the possibility for stimulating new ideas and effective actions.

Some that I’ve found helpful are:

Embrace the reality that adult men and women want more integration in their lives, especially between their work and non-work lives. That’s not negated by the fact that they work for a mission-driven, nonprofit organization. They, too, want career success, as well as a greater sense of meaning and purpose. Research shows that these, in fact, are the key challenges for adulthood.  In the workplace they take the form of wanting respect and recognition, teamwork, and creative opportunity. They will repudiate arrogance, authoritarianism, and insensitivity on the part of managers — although they share the same ideals and ideology. There are many horror stories about nonprofits whose values embodied in their missions are completely at odds with the tyrannical behavior of their leaders, who would easily qualify for a listing in “Worst Bosses in America.”

When an organization decides to go for outside help, it should look for consultants who share similar perspectives and values regarding the organization’s ideals in particular, or nonprofit activity in general. They do exist, but one may have to hunt around to find them. Inquire about the consultant’s own values, perspectives, and sensitivity to the nonprofit mission; or about his or her experience and savvy about the linkage between personal and organizational conflicts. Because much conflict within nonprofits results from failure to “walk the walk” internally, replicating the problem in the form of the selection of consultant will not resolve it.

Be mindful that success requires leadership practices and policies that are both humanly and organizationally effective. Both are necessary.  And they need to occur within a socially responsible and ethical context, as well. All efforts to deal with management, staff relationship, and personal conflict issues must be rooted in this integrated perspective, or they are bound to recur.

The conflicts I’ve described require nonprofits to give more than lip service to the developmental needs of staff as well as to the realities of organizational life and careers.  I’ve found that the most successfully functioning nonprofits understand and support the needs and strengths of its members. They know that a positive management culture brings out the best in both the organization and it’s staff, at all levels.  In short, successful nonprofit organizations step up to the challenge of practicing their own ideals inside the organization, not just outside.

After all, whether at the office or at home, our internal and external conduct — the “personal” and the “political” — are really one and the same.