Conflict Governance: Managing Role Conflict, Strain & Ambiguity

While ‘conflict of interest’ is generally understood to relate to directors needing to separate their board responsibilities from self-interest (especially financial benefit for themselves or those close to them), role (or goal) conflict, role strain, and role ambiguity tend to be less thoroughly addressed in non-profit governance mechanisms.

Social scientists tell us that the term ‘roles’ refers to the behaviours, obligations, and privileges attached to our status (ascribed and/or achieved). This post will confine itself to (positional) roles achieved within a non-profit organisation.

As illustrated in the header image above, role strain describes the stress experienced by a person due to two aspects of a single role.

Role ambiguity describes a situation in which either the expectations of a role are unclear, or the boundaries between roles are somewhat blurred. Naturally, this can also be a cause of role strain.

Role conflict arises where a person has multiple roles, which sometimes have competing goals and drivers. ‘Conflict of interest’ is one of the forms of role conflict which is well recognised in governance standards and codes. Pandey and Kumar (1997) defined role conflict as:

“a state of mind or experience or perception of the role incumbent arising out of the simultaneous occurrence of two or more role expectations such that compliance with one would make compliance with the other(s) more difficult or even impossible”.

Pandey, S. and Kumar, E.S., Development of a Measure of Role Conflict, Int. Journal of Conflict Management, 1997, Vol 8. No. 3, p.191

Organisational conflict is a complex area, in which role conflict is just one of the sources. (See the purple row in the Organisational Conflict Cube below). Most of the literature on organisational conflict focuses on management and staff issues and processes, however many of the recommended analysis and response measures can be adapted to the governance of conflict. Managing Conflict in Organizations (4th Edition) by M. Afzular Rahim is one such excellent reference.

Managing expectations and conduct

Being clear about the ‘role’ you are performing as a director, and how it intersects with other roles you may have, is a high-value skill. Your range of ‘interests’ may all be legitimate, so the issue is less one of avoidance and more one of how any conflict (real or perceived) is managed.

This involves managing both your own expectations and those of the group/s you work with. It also requires compliance with codes of conduct (behaviour standards) and associated procedures.

Toggling between roles/modes

The concept of ‘toggling’ between two different modes (or roles) is one I encountered often during my involvement with health professionals over some decades. When analysing factors contributing to problems in their relationships with patients, and sometimes with regulators, difficulty in ‘toggling’ between clinical (treatment) and relating (consulting) modes was frequently a causal factor.

Providing high-quality health care, especially where surgical procedures are involved, requires a laser-like focus on the operating field and all the clinical factors that need to be taken into account at each of the stages between taking a medical history and reviewing the treatment outcomes. Where a practitioner gets ‘stuck’ in clinical mode, they can be accused of being ‘arrogant’ or ‘unfeeling’. Where they get ‘stuck’ in relating mode, they may overstep professional boundaries, or pay insufficient attention to the complexity of the treatment required.

Non-profit directors may also experience difficulties toggling between their roles, and this can be a cause of governance problems. Additionally, where role strain is ongoing or extreme, this can lead to dysfunction, disengagement, loss of confidence, and/or resignation (note the parallels with moral distress).

Depending on the type and number of roles held, directors may experience more or less role conflict (and/or conflict of interest). The chart below suggests some of the common legitimate roles and purposes held by people involved in associations and charities. While some may consider this collection atypical, I know of a number of instances where even more complex ‘role sets’ or portfolios exist.

Scenarios can be described for each pair of roles from this set, where conflicts might arise. Let’s take just three examples:

  1. State and Federal Director roles
    A person may have been ‘elected’ to a federal director role by virtue of their membership of a State organisation. When sitting at the Federal board table, their obligation to serve the interests of all members nationally, over-rides their obligations to serve the needs of their source jurisdiction. While the director may understand this, it is important for their state board colleagues to accept this, to avoid any suggestion that they failed to represent the State’s interests, or that they had a conflict of interest that meant they should not participate in decision-making on a given issue.
  2. Committee member and State Director roles
    A director who also serves on a committee of the same body has an obligation to support the corporate strategy despite any contrary opinions held by committee colleagues. That director cannot hold one view when in the committee, and another when at the board table.
  3. Volunteer and State Director roles
    As a director, the role includes holding the CEO to account for achievement of corporate goals, while as a volunteer involved in one particular activity, the director is simply another member of the operational team taking procedural direction from management.

Governing role conflicts

The first step in governing role conflicts is recognising that these are normal in most non-profit organisations. The establishment of codes of conduct to guide people in all organisational roles is the next step, along with review of any existing procedures to ensure that role conflict, role strain, and role ambiguity are also recognised and addressed with suitable prevention and response measures. These would complement your governance mechanisms for dealing with conflict of interest (e.g. procedures for declaring a possible conflict, maintaining conflict registers, annual updating of declared interests, etc.).

See also:

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