Conflict in Nonprofit Boards

It’s Not Conflict, It’s Differences in Opinion: An In-Depth Examination of Conflict in Nonprofit Boards“, by Shannon Kerwin of the University of Florida, Alison Doherty and Alanna Harman, both of the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, was recently published in Small Group Research OnlineFirst. Shannon Kerwin has provided additional background to the article:

Who is the target audience for this article?

The target audience would be workgroups that may experience conflict and/or disagreement; more specifically non-profit boards of directors.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

Having worked in an organization with a board of directors – prior to my academic career – I saw both the benefits and pitfalls of unmanaged disagreement and conflict. I truly believe that conflict can be functional; however, it often gets “lost in the mix”.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

The most surprising finding to us was the degree to which “intensity of conflict” played a role in the nature, development, and outcomes of each conflict type. The spectrum of intensity that was described by the participants was quite fascinating. We were also quite surprised by the participants’ reluctance to use the word “Conflict”. There is a definite stigma surrounding the term in this context.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

We hope that future research will use our study to further emphasize that the original conceptualization of intragroup conflict needs to be adjusted; including intensity into the discussion may be a good first step. Further, we hope that non-profit boards can use this study to help reduce the stigma surrounding disagreement, and formulate ways to embrace productive discussion/disagreement; potentially leading to positive outcomes.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

We have previously published a study in the Journal of Sport Management that highlights the nature and impact of conflict in the non-profit setting. We are also in the process of investigating the triggering effect of substantive conflict to personal conflict, and the factors that may moderate that process. Finally, the findings of this SGR study have opened our eyes (and minds) to new factors that may contribute to the development of intense/less intense intragroup conflict. These studies are either in the conceptual or data collection phase. Our main areas of interest are organizational behavior and theory as it relates to sport management, and our particular focus has landed on unpacking the complexities of intragroup conflict.

How did your paper change during the review process?

The reviewers provided extremely valuable feedback that helped us focus the direction of our paper. With so much data coming out of a qualitative research study, the critical eye of the reviewer(s) was something that brought clarity and focus to the work. The ability to extract and discuss the implications of the continuum of intensity of each conflict type was based on the encouragement of both the reviewer and editor. As such, the review process enhanced the contribution that this paper may/can make to the academic and practical community.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

I will not speak for the other authors, but for me personally, I would have loved to have been able to get in touch with those individuals who chose not to participate. I think even a few comments on why they chose not to participate may have added a bit of richness to our data. Further to this, if access permitted, observing these participants in their board meetings may have helped to further categorize the nature, development, and impact of intensity of task, process, and relationship conflict.

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