5 Ways to Handle Volunteer Team Conflict

5 ways to handle volunteer team conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. Volunteers may feel frustrated by each others’ performance, disagree with how you allocate funds, or dislike their assignments. While you likely can’t avoid ideological differences and friction, there are many ways to prevent some conflicts and manage those that slip through the cracks. Explore how to prevent team conflict with five strategies for resolving it in your organization. 

Strategies for Preventing Team Conflict

Get ahead of conflicts with these prevention strategies.

  1. Set clear expectations: As you post volunteer listings and screen volunteers, write unambiguous descriptions about the role and your organization. Volunteers’ values are less likely to clash with yours when they understand your mission before coming aboard. 
  2. Gain volunteer input: It’s no secret that many volunteers have fantastic ideas, and encouraging them to share their feedback can help you avoid misunderstandings related to them feeling unheard or undervalued. 
  3. Foster a communicative culture: Confusion can multiply when communication efforts fall short. An email can result in an argument, failing to bring up concerns as they arise can lead to emotions bubbling over, and not taking time to explain the reasoning behind decisions can cause frustration. 
  4. Emphasize goals: Highlighting your organization’s goals helps keep volunteers on the same page and avoid mismatched values. 

5 Ways to Manage Team Conflict 

Organizations with a robust conflict management strategy often have a more positive work environment where volunteers feel comfortable sharing their experiences. Here are five strategies for handling conflict between team members. 

1. Let Things Cool Off

If an argument arises between volunteers, let things cool off before taking any additional steps. In the heat of the moment, people may be less willing to seek a compromise and more likely to be passionate about having their way. Resolution efforts will be more productive once everyone has had time to decompress. 

2. Talk to the Volunteer(s) Privately

If the conflict involves one volunteer, you can speak to them privately to see what’s bothering them. Encourage them to talk openly and listen to them empathetically. 

When the conflict involves multiple volunteers, listen to each party independently to better understand the issue. The conversation can be very informal — it’s an opportunity to get a feel for what’s happening. Listen intently, and as you do, remain objective and never bad-mouth another volunteer. As a general rule, follow these tips. 

  • Ask each party the same questions: If you ask each volunteer different questions, remaining impartial may be more challenging.
  • Avoid making assumptions: Immediate assumptions may lead to biases that prevent you from moving forward. 
  • Make a note of trends: Take note of trends, like multiple volunteers expressing concern about the same individual. 
  • Don’t make promises regarding resolution: Some volunteers may enter the meeting asking you to fix the problem according to their wishes. Because you want to find a win-win resolution, don’t agree with individual concerns right away. 

Also, reassure each person that your conversation is completely confidential, and keep your promise to preserve their trust. 

3. Mediate a Conversation Between Volunteers

After you understand the conflict, you can mediate a conversation between the affected volunteers. Before the mediation, thank each volunteer for their time and set some ground rules. Emphasize that the discussion should remain calm, ensure everyone commits to listening to one another, and reiterate that you want to reach a mutually beneficial solution. 

Emphasize that the discussion should remain calm, ensure everyone commits to listening to one another, and reiterate that you want to reach a mutually beneficial solution.

After thanking everybody for meeting and discussing the purpose of the mediation, you can follow these steps:

  • Let each party explain their feelings without interruption.
  • Identify the core issues and any common ground between the volunteers. 
  • Ask the volunteers for examples of times when they’ve worked together successfully.
  • Resolve any “quick” issues to build momentum. 
  • Ask each volunteer what actions they’d like to see the other person or organization make. 
  • Brainstorm win-win solutions. 
  • Draft a written agreement once you have all reached a solution. 

4. Employ a Tried-and-True Resolution Strategy

Depending on the conflict, you might employ one of the following resolution strategies.

  • Accommodation: Someone may be willing to forfeit their position if the conflict is less meaningful to them, they want to remain fair, or protecting the relationship is a higher priority than arguing.
  • Avoidance: Best for minor conflicts, this strategy means no one addresses the conflict. Avoidance can be appropriate if you’re confident the problem will resolve itself or want to take your time handling it. However, ignoring significant issues can make emotions simmer and boil over later. 
  • Competition: With a competitive resolution method, one party wins over another by exerting dominance and power. However, it can damage relationships when misused, so it’s best left in the reserves unless you’ve tried everything else or you require quick and decisive action. 
  • Compromise: Everyone gets some of what they want while also giving something up. Compromises maintain relationships while ensuring the resolution is equitable. 
  • Collaboration: Collaboration requires a lot of trust, so while it’s the ideal solution, it’s also the most challenging. Each party empathizes with one another and can reach a resolution by getting to the heart of the issue. 

5. Involve a Third Party

If you feel you cannot resolve the issue yourself — whether because of biases or how complicated it is — bring in a third party, like another volunteer leader or an external mediator. They can facilitate conversation, provide an unbiased perspective, and suggest additional solutions. 

How to Resolve Conflict Within a Team — Example Scenario

Imagine you have a volunteer, Mary, who’s worked with your organization for years. She’s passionate about your mission, works well with the other volunteers, and always brings valuable ideas to the table. One day, you notice Mary acting more subdued than usual, and her body language suggests frustration. 

When you talk to Mary privately, she explains how another volunteer, John, recently delegated scheduling responsibilities to her. She says she’s happy to take on the new duties, but also mentions she’s stressed because John failed to teach her about the scheduling process before leaving her in charge. 

You then ask John to explain his side of the story. Remember to come to the conversation without assumptions — John may not have meant to leave Mary without help. Perhaps he thought Mary already understood how to use the scheduling software, or assumed someone else would train her. 

After taking some time to ensure you understand the issue, you can bring Mary and John together for a mediated conversation. Follow step three, giving both of them time to speak. 

At the end of the conversation, Mary and John might come to a collaborative solution where John apologizes for not teaching Mary the software, Mary promises to go to John if she has any questions, and John agrees to teach Mary how to schedule tomorrow. 

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Preventing conflicts within organizations requires fostering a communicative culture and clarifying volunteer expectations. There are many ways to do so, from ensuring your scheduling policies are clear to implementing a streamlined messaging system.

With volunteer tracking software from Volgistics, you can stay organized, keep your volunteers engaged, and gain insights into volunteer activities. Explore the Volgistics volunteer tracking software solutions, or request a free demo today!