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Working in the voluntary sector
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3.2 Causes of conflict

When addressing problems in a voluntary organisation, it is important to be clear about the difference between symptoms and causes. Just as with an illness, there is no point in simply suppressing the symptoms, like a runny nose, if the underlying cause – an infection – is not tackled.

Conflict results from differences between people and that can lead to blame focusing on individual issues, but conflict is complicated because the causes can arise at different levels in the organisation. Conflict may manifest in one context, but its causes and roots may lie in interpersonal differences, in a mismatch between personal and organisational values, or in factors external to the organisation, even in society at large.

It is important to recognise where the causes of conflict arise. For example, if you are able to recognise that what feels like a conflict at a personal level is in fact caused by difference derived from different priorities in the organisation, then this could make a significant difference in how you deal with it. In reality, of course, the picture usually is not quite as clear-cut as this.

Conflict is often derived from a mixture of causes from all the levels of the explanation mentioned above. Therefore, in seeking to understand the causes of conflict, we use a set of categories – the ‘layers of conflict’ – that recognises these levels and the complex overlaps between the categories.

The ‘layers’ in organisational conflict

A useful way of thinking about the causes of conflict is to see the differences and disagreements as comprising various interrelated layers. Conflict will often involve several of these layers. As a result, quite different sorts of disagreement and sources of conflict are superimposed on each other, making the conflict difficult to analyse and pin down. Table 1 distinguishes five layers of conflict.

Table 1 Five layers of conflict
1. MisunderstandingsThese are differences and conflicts resulting from genuine misconceptions about what is said or implied – people ‘getting hold of the wrong end of the stick’.
2. Differences in values and beliefsPeople’s values and beliefs influence how they view and act in the world. Differences in values are likely to manifest themselves in disagreements over how the organisation should be run. For example, people may disagree over whether to accept sponsorship or assistance from particular companies.
3. Differences in interestThese arise primarily from competition for scarce ‘goods’ and resources. These ‘goods’ may be things that people want as individuals – status, power and position – or the difference can arise as departments or sections compete for limited resources within the organisation.
4. Interpersonal differencesFor all kinds of reasons, people can have difficulty in ‘getting on’ with others – differences in personality, temperament or style may be involved. A ‘personality clash’ is the usual term for this.
5. Feelings and emotions

It is difficult to separate hurt feelings from the things with which we disagree. Equally, conflict itself can arouse strong emotions and lead to further conflict. Emotions aroused in one situation can easily spill over into another situation.

Often, we only realise after the turbulent meeting that it was what we represented that was attacked, rather than us personally.