Dealing with conflict between a community and its manager

by Martin Reed on 28 February 2011 in Articles

conflict in online communities

As a community manager, you should expect to deal with conflict between members of your online community. What’s talked about less often is conflict between you and your community.

When change breeds conflict

Over at Just Epals, there was a conflict between members over forum posts appearing in dashboard feeds (a list of all recent activity in the community). This pushed all other updates off the feed, until all that was left was a list of notifications of new posts in a handful of forum discussions (mainly word games).

Some members loved this, others didn’t. Some contacted me to ask that forum posts be removed from the dashboard feeds. I thought it was a good suggestion, so I went ahead and made the change. The disapproval from the community was almost instantaneous. What was once a conflict between members was now a conflict between members and their community manager.

Members complained that they couldn’t keep track of the forums anymore. They complained that members were consequently leaving the community.

I still think the suggestion to remove these notifications from the dashboard feed was a good idea. However, I can’t forget that my job is to satisfy the members of Just Epals – not myself. Instead of risking a continued conflict, I started a forum poll with the simple question, “Do You Want to See Forum Posts in the Dash Feed?”. Majority would rule.

In the end, the vote was unanimous. Members wanted forum posts back in their feeds. Therefore, it was done. Those who didn’t want the forum posts in their feed saw that most people disagreed with them and liked them being there. Both sides saw the fact that I was willing to listen to them and take their opinions on board.

Members of online communities are largely resistant to change, but that doesn’t mean you should stop experimenting. Sometimes a change will stick, and it will be hugely beneficial for the community.

In summary:

1. Explain why the change was made.
2. Outline your position (set in stone or open to discussion).
3. If you’re open to discussion, invite constructive feedback and keep an open dialogue.

When your hands are tied

Perhaps the biggest conflict I had to deal with was when I took the decision to use an alternative supplier for the chat software at Just Chat. We had used the same software for around seven years so making this change was huge – the chat experience was fundamental to the success of the site.

I was happy with the existing software until the supplier launched a new version. It was awful – if we had stuck with it, it would have ruined the site. The new version was a huge disappointment; the supplier was fantastic in terms of support and I envisioned being a customer of theirs indefinitely. How they got the new version of their software so wrong is still a mystery to me. When I saw a beta version, I knew that it just wouldn’t work on Just Chat. Therefore, I had to look for an alternative supplier and fast.

After finding a new supplier, I slowly rolled out the new software on Just Chat along with an announcement explaining why we were making the change. Immediately the calls came to put the software back to how it was before. Unfortunately, even if I wanted to, this was impossible – the version that users of Just Chat were used to was being discontinued by the vendor. Change had to happen.

I was convinced the new software I picked was right for Just Chat. It offered far more flexibility and customization and would (in time) make for a more enjoyable chat forum experience for our users.

To deal with the conflict between the community and myself, I actively encouraged constructive feedback and suggestions. I made changes based on feedback received, and posted regular updates when the changes were made.

In summary:

1. Acknowledge and explain the cause of the conflict.
2. Outline what you can and can’t do to address member concerns.
3. Keep a dialogue going. Answer questions and help members adapt to the change.

When you are determined

In 2008, we banned a number of Just Chat’s power members. This was done due to their behavior getting worse over time. Despite numerous warnings, these went ignored – our power members thought they were untouchable due to the huge influence they had within the community and the number of posts they’d contributed to the forums.

When we banned these members, there was a huge response from the community. Members felt we’d been over-zealous and banned without warning (not true). Others told us the community would die now our most prolific posters were gone. Others threatened to leave unless we reversed our decision.

We stood firm. We’d made numerous warnings that continued abuse and ignorance of our site rules would no longer be tolerated. The members we’d banned chose to ignore these warnings, so they had to live with the consequences.

This was something we couldn’t go back on. If members saw that we weren’t consistent when it came to enforcing the site rules, they’d simply be ignored forever. We needed to send a clear message that our warnings were genuine and that abuse of our rules wouldn’t be tolerated.

There was a huge subsequent dip in activity on the message boards for months. However, this gave other members the opportunity to make their voice heard and contribute. It was amazing just how many members there were that wanted to get more involved but felt pushed out by the vocal ‘power members’. They saw their chance, and they took it.

In summary:

1. Outline the rationale behind the decision that caused the conflict.
2. Decide whether to allow public discussion (this could make things worse).
3. Listen to member concerns, privately if necessary.

As always, the key to conflict resolution is dialogue. You need to be honest, though. If there’s no chance of you changing your mind or addressing member concerns, don’t make out that there is. Most of the time, ignoring your members is the wrong thing to do but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s a fine line and a tough decision to make, but that’s just another one of the challenges of being an online community manager.

Share this community building advice


Similar Posts

Previous post:

Next post:


Souxi March 1, 2011 at 3:26 am

I remember the fuss over the change of software very well Martin. There were numerous posts about it all, with users demanding the old software back. They complained about being *thrown into the lobby* if I recall correctly. However what they either couldn’t or wouldn’t grasp was, all they had to do was simply click on a chosen room and in they’d go. So they wouldn’t have to stay in the lobby at all if they didn’t want too. Then they moaned that the other regular rooms wern’t being used. Well there were still there, you hadn’t taken them away. It was a simple matter of highlighting the room of their choice and clicking on it. What is difficult about that?
Strangly enough though, despite all the moaning about how awful it was/is, they still use the site. Despite moaning about being *thrown into the lobby* they still stay there. The reason is, as we both know, that all the *action* is in the lobby and no one can stand to miss anything. ;)

The other incident you mention I remember well too. Yes things quietened down for a while, but they have picked up again. Despite repeated claims that the site *is dying*, it’s actually thriving and doing very well. The decision was made for the good of the site and it was the right decision.

Changing things is always going to be risky and people will always complain, but in the end, they get used to it. Do you remember the fuss when you changed the colour of the site? Everyone whinged and moaned and said how awful it was etc etc but they soon got used to it. I think sometimes people just like to moan. It gives them something to do. Ultimately when you are the one in charge, the final decision has to be yours. Sure consult with the users and ask their opinion, because after all they are the ones using the site, but in the end, the final decision is down to you.

Beata A. March 1, 2011 at 2:13 pm

THANK YOU for posting on this topic, and I wish all supervisors were as willing to listen to their users as you are.
At the end of the day, your users are what keep your site afloat, and you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It was wonderful of you to take a poll on the forum posts, and then to actually carry out what the users wanted instead of just making changes and telling them, “Live with it.”. :)

Helen Blundell March 2, 2011 at 1:11 am

Another great article. It reminds me of the discussions we had here when we decided to change the look of our forums and break one huge area into several subject-specific ones. Despite surveys showing this was what the members overwhelmingly wanted, there were those who really just dislike change and moaned and moaned just as you describe, even though the changes were for the better for the majority. We reminded ourselves of the famous Henry Ford comment, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Crookes April 1, 2011 at 5:31 am

So rarely do managers listen to their communities – such a shame. That said, can be very difficult to know who to ignore – every user is going to want different things.

I think the power of community can be seen very well in the world of open source, as can the pitfalls!

Woc April 2, 2011 at 7:31 am


You are right when you say people are resistant to change, but I agree you shouldnt stop experimenting with things, try not to make wild sweeping changes unless you have to.

Introduce things slowly and you can better gauge peoples opinions, however there are times when change is just thrust upon you, and sometimes you have to explain to your users, why the changes have to be made, most people once they understand accept this.


Robert Shaver May 3, 2011 at 1:15 am

Great article on how to handle conflicts. Just change some of the terms and your post can be used to deal with common management issues on just about any company. Point is sometimes people wants to push things without really looking at both sides. By listening and carefully putting suggestions to get a good middle ground can greatly enhance relationships , resolve conflicts and make points that will be beneficial to both parties.

Bruce Walker May 4, 2011 at 8:06 pm

I am recently witnessing two extremes in fourm moderation. Some forums I visit have a no censor policy that leads to a whole bunch of the ‘communithy’ leaving either irrelevant, illogical or three word messages just to get their spammy message and/ or link in their signature posted. This seems to continue because there either are not enough moderators, no one reports this, or the owners just want more visitors for more page rank.

The other extreme is the close club exclusive forums such as book clubs. They only seem to admit people who are either from their local area or have some private dealings with other forum members. I would not mind this, but why pretent the forum is open and they are after new ideas. If I visit somewhere that I have nothing to add to the discussion, why would I want to tread on everyones toes?

I think that being a forum or community leader can be one of the toughest jobs around, but with well defined rules and principles everyone should know how to behave, and if it is enforced who can really complain?

Sharon May 13, 2011 at 5:07 am

Community managers should definitely be held accountable by their communities. It isn’t always pretty (as you’ve outlined) but ultimately it’s good for the community because they get features they want (unless it’s outdated chat software… ;) ). And it gives the community manager a lot of power too, to be able to take poll results and say, “See? 80% of our users want this feature.”

Steve Risen May 13, 2011 at 11:25 am

I see some community managers being so scrict they defeat the purpose of their community in the first place. A person should be able to act freely as long as they stand within normal boundaries of respect in an online community.

Donna J. Sheridan May 17, 2011 at 6:24 am

This was the best article on how we can handle conflicts, from my experience one of the flaws of most conflict resolution and mediation courses is their inability to deal with the one on one confrontations.

katsky May 19, 2011 at 12:33 am

While I was reading this article, I remember my boss was kinda like you. He is always open to both sides and willing to listen before reacting. When both parties will just listen to each other, conflicts will easily be solved.

Kimberly May 25, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Community management is something that when done right can be a great thing – but when done wrong can bring a community down to its knees (or up n2 an uproar). You seem like a very fair community manager and that is a really important thing. The worst community management I have seen are those which do not treat ALL members fairly but only pay attention to those who squeak the loudest. The fact that you put things up to vote to the members, is a good thing and shows your genuine desire for fairness in your management. Thanks so much for sharing the information. I look forward to networking with you in the near future.