Why conflict happens in social change groups

There are some particular features of grassroots social change groups that are potential sources of conflict: a culture of ‘get the job done’; having ineffective meetings and lack of clarity about aims; and the fact that we’re challenging mainstream norms but don’t start on a level playing field.

A Culture of ‘Get the Job Done’

We call ourselves activists. We want to get out there and make change happen: we want to put a stop to damaging systems, we want to create sustainable ones, and we want to do it now! Activists can be very efficient at getting the task done, sometimes to the detriment of investing time and energy in healthy interpersonal relationships, and creating inclusive and participatory work practices. An easy way to check whether a group has a healthy balance between this group maintenance and getting the job done, is to note how many ‘task’ roles, and how many ‘maintenance’ roles a group is fulfilling.

A healthy ratio will depend on the function of the group and the people involved in it. Your group mind find equilibrium with an emphasis on maintenance roles, an emphasis on task roles or a 50:50 balance.

We tend to create cultures in our groups that reward getting the job done and dismiss investing in interpersonal relationships as wasting time.

Try this:

Have in mind a group that you are part of as you read the list of task and maintenance roles in meetings, see the table below. In that particular group, which of the ‘task’ roles do you play? And which ‘maintenance’ roles? Does the group tend to carry out more of the task roles, or maintenance roles? What would a healthy equilibrium look like in your group? What could you do to help your group reach this equilibrium?

Task roles in meetings
  • Suggest agenda
  • Identify issues for the group to work on
  • Highlight task-based problems and solutions
  • Request or offer facts
  • Give opinions
  • Identify issues and alternatives
  • Explain and elaborate on ideas
  • Pull together related issues
  • Show contradictions
  • Examine assumptions and ideas
  • Suggest where to go next

Maintenance roles in meetings

  • Be compassionate to others
  • Express feelings and encourage others to express theirs
  • Offer or accept compromise
  • Suggest procedures for discussion
  • Make space for breaks
  • Joke and laugh
  • Draw out silent members
  • Name unspoken issues
  • Summarise discussion
  • Help to find areas of agreement
  • Make group aware of direction and progress

If a group rewards a ‘get the job done’ attitude, and dismisses investing in interpersonal relationships as wasting time, this ‘task’ skew can lead to poor communication. By poor communication we mean that people don’t have space or ability to express how they feel, their concerns or their needs. It also means that people are less able to hear the feelings, concerns and needs of others.

Ineffective Meetings

Many people develop an aversion to meetings. When they have spent years in meetings with no clear agenda, and discussions going round in circles, you can understand why. For a group to sustain itself over the long-term, it’s vital to develop the skills to both participate in and facilitate effective meetings. Facilitation is much more than letting anyone speak who has their hand in the air. It’s about helping the group move forward with their task in an inclusive and participatory way.

Many grassroots groups practice consensus decision-making however without a clear understanding by all in the group of what the consensus process is about, and which decisions are best suited to other forms of decision making, conflict can easily brew up, as people find themselves getting bogged down in disagreement with no clear way of finding a solution.

See our guides on Consensus Decision Making and Facilitating Meetings for more info.

Lack of Clarity

Lack of clarity about a group’s aims can lead to conflict. Many groups form because they’re passionate about an issue. For a while this can be a good enough strategy, but when new people get involved, or after an initial achievement, if there are no clear boundaries that the group is working within, or aims it’s working towards, it can lead to everyone pulling in different directions. New recruits might start working towards slightly different aims, this can of course be very positive as new people bring fresh ideas, it can also lead to conflict as longer standing members see their group becoming something very different to what they had intended it to be.

Challenging societal norms is no small task, and we don’t start on a level playing field

Activists challenge many aspects of mainstream society. We challenge capitalism, we challenge racism, we challenge patriarchy. Challenging societal norms also involves re- negotiating how we work with, and relate to each other within our groups. For example, if we don’t want to work in a hierarchy, then what kind of flat structure do we want? Or, if we don’t want to have sexist relationships with each other, what would be a healthy way for women, men and gender- queer people to relate to each other?

These are huge issues, so no wonder we bump up against each other while we’re trying to find a way through it all.

Power imbalances in groups

Two common examples of imbalances of power in our groups are privilege and informal hierarchies.


The norms that operate in our society are those of dominant ‘mainstream’ groups: white, rich, middle class, heterosexual, male etc. The mainstream is not about numbers. Even though there are more poor people in the world, the rich have their interests recognised by the structures in our society to the detriment of the poor. Every group has mainstreams: those qualities, behaviours and values that are supported by the group, whilst other qualities and behaviours are pushed to the margins eg a group where there is a culture of noisy debate will have some quiet people or a group that is very ordered and polite will have some people who would like to express strong emotion. The mainstream of the group sets the tone, the communication style and gets to have its own preferences accepted by the margins. Mainstreams are often unconsciousness of their power in their groups. Without genuine and continuous efforts by the mainstream to become aware of these power differences and to change their behaviour in relation to the margins, conflict will arise.

Regardless of the body, skin colour, sexuality or class we were born with, we are not responsible for the fact that society gives us varying degrees of privilege and unearned power. However, we are responsible for what we do with this power, in our intimate relationships, activist groups and society more broadly. Understanding privilege is an integral part of bringing about social change. Conflict around privilege can be very subtle, and often hard to pinpoint. The people most likely to notice power imbalances are more likely to be the ones with less power in the group. The conflict arises when there’s a desire from some people in the group to address these power dynamics, but a lack of awareness or unwillingness to spend time on it from others. For example, a woman in a group might say “I notice most of the talking is being done by men. I’d like us to address this”. A response might come back “Its nothing to do with us being men, we just have a lot to say at the moment. If the women want to say something, they should speak up!” The men in the group might struggle to understand their gender privilege, and fail to address their behaviour in the group leading to conflict.

We are responsible for what we do with the power that privilege gives us.

Informal Hierarchies

A group might initially be set up by a small group of friends who develop their way of doing things. When new people become involved the founders may assume that the cultures and practices they set for the group will suit the newcomers. For example, founding members of a group may develop a practice of knowing everything that’s going on in the group, which might work well for a small group. However, as the group grows, it will be increasingly difficult for everyone, especially newcomers, to keep on top of everything going on in the group. A situation can develop where newcomers become familiar with only one aspect of the group, while the founders retain an overview of the group, creating an informal hierarchy of knowledge, skills and power.

Informal hierarchies can also be created when people specialise in a certain area. For example, someone who writes for the group’s website might develop a reputation for being good at this. If they get asked again they will continue to improve their skills, and the role will be increasingly associated with this person. When skills or information aren’t shared, and roles aren’t rotated, an informal skills or knowledge hierarchy can develop in the group, which can lead to resentment and eventually conflict.