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Working in the voluntary sector
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Multi-layered conflict

Several or all of the layers outlined in Table 1 may be involved in a conflict. A conflict in any one layer may aggravate a conflict in another layer. This helps to explain why conflict can be so hard to analyse and resolve. For example, many so-called personality clashes may be, in part at least, symptoms or expressions of other differences concerning organisational values or pressures due to differing stakeholder interests.

The following case study illustrates a multi-layered conflict.

Case study: A multi-layered conflict

Jamie was employed in an advice agency, advising migrants and refugees. His post was funded by a local authority grant. The agency was run by a management committee including lawyers, civil liberties experts and others. The paid director had previously held a prominent position elsewhere in public life. There had been tension and various conflicts between Jamie and the director from the time the latter first joined the agency. Jamie did not fit in well with the respectable image that the director was keen to project for the agency. Other staff felt that they both ‘rubbed each other the wrong way’.

One dispute centred on Jamie’s clothes. The director complained that Jamie dressed too casually when presenting appeals to an immigration appeals tribunal. The director felt that this could undermine the credibility of the agency and possibly jeopardise support. Privately, he also felt that Jamie reflected badly on him and undermined his position when dealing with officials.

Jamie, on the other hand, argued that he was conscious of the need to maintain the confidence of his clients, and that he dressed according to their expectations. Privately, he was also keen to maintain his credibility with activists working in the area.

Finally, the conflict came to a head when the director discovered that Jamie had links with local businesses who employed people without work visas. The director suspended Jamie, pending dismissal.

Activity 4 Layers of conflict

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Reread the case study, using the idea of ‘layers’ of conflict to identify where the causes of the problems lay between Jamie and the director.

Make notes on:

  • misunderstandings
  • differences in values and beliefs
  • differences in interest
  • interpersonal differences
  • feelings and emotions.
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At one level there was a personality clash between the director and Jamie, with the two ‘rubbing each other up the wrong way’. However, this may have been a symptom of much deeper differences concerning values and beliefs. Jamie seemed to believe that his role was to help people with immigration difficulties, using all practical means at his disposal. The director, however, seemed to believe that Jamie should not act in a way that might prejudice the image or the reputation of the agency.

Interests were also involved. Jamie would probably claim that he was acting in the best interest of his clients. The director would probably have disputed this and so probably felt that Jamie was prejudicing the interests of the agency as a whole, and possibly his clients, too.

Personal interests also seem to be involved – Jamie’s credibility with ‘activists’ and the director’s own position and reputation, which he felt could be undermined by Jamie’s activities.