Conflict can be healthy

One of the most difficult things for any leader to confront and manage is conflict. Most leaders fear conflict because we have seen the disastrous effects of toxic conflict. However, not all conflict is healthy. Indeed, no real growth happens without conflict.

And the first thing I’d say to leaders in regards to conflict is that you don’t have to fear it. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing and can actually be profitable for your team. Nor should you jump in too quickly to resolve conflict that arises in your team. It may be that the best thing to do is to let it play out between members. However, that takes discernment.

Jesus seems to have been willing to induce healthy conflict amongst His disciples so they could work through a problem. Mark 9:33 seems to indicate that Jesus allowed the disciples to argue and debate things, rather than jumping in and giving them the answer before they’d had a chance to work through it themselves.

In understanding conflict (and my role in it), I have often found the following categories from Speed Leas helpful:

 

LEVEL OF CONFLICT

DESIRE OF AT LEAST ONE PARTY

OBJECTIVE OF AT LEAST ONE PARTY

I) Problem

to solve

“Let’s talk about this problem together.”

To solve the issue

II) Disagreement

“I disagree with your opinion/actions.”

Take up one particular side.

III) Contest

“This is a question of right and wrong!”

To win the conflict

IV) Fight/Flight

“I will see this person out of here/their position.”

Not just to win but to beat the opposition

V) Intractable

Solution

“I will make sure everyone knows what sort of person this is!”

To destroy the opposition publicly.

 

So, you can see that Levels 1 & 2 (possibly even 3) can be healthy conflict. Our role as leaders is to help our teams assess a conflict situation well and resolve well. Don’t be too quick to jump in and solve a situation – that can just cause our teams to be dependant on us. Let’s work on creating a culture where people can work together and resolve conflict well.

This can be somewhat abstract so let’s look at an example to help us understand the stages of conflict:

There was a Church once in which one of the Church deacons, named Mal, did not like the choice of contemporary music for the services by the Worship Director, named Paul. One Sunday after the morning service, Paul told Mal that he had a problem with the music. Paul took note of the comment but decided that no action should be taken because he believed Mal was in a small minority.

After a month of no perceivable change, Mal took the music issue to the diaconate. The Pastor (Wally) decided he should have a chat to Paul. Wally agreed with Paul’s assessment and no further action was taken.

After a further month of no change, Mal brought up the matter at the next deacon’s meeting, saying, “The Worship Director is making poor decisions regarding music that ignore the older members of the congregation who have put their hearts and souls into this Church over many years. And, I’m not the only one who feels like this!” At this, the deacons called a Church forum to discuss Church music, with Paul and Wally to lead it.

Mal and some others came to the forum and sat together on the opposite side of the room to Paul. It was clear that there had been a great deal of talking going on behind the scenes on both sides and the meeting quickly moved to the unscheduled question, “whether the current Worship leadership team should remain?”

At the next diaconate meeting, resignation letters were received from Paul and most key musicians. Mal felt he had proved his point that Paul did not have the spiritual qualities to lead Church worship.

Take some time to work through how the different stages of conflict can be seen in this example.

One of the most critical times when we establish a healthy culture of conflict is in the initial phase of group formation. Group Theory says that as groups develop, they go through a process of “Form, Storm, Norm, Perform”:

  • Form is when the group is created & everyone comes tentatively searching for purpose and inclusion;
  • Storm is the inevitable point when members within the group conflict on something and storm;
  • Norm is the level of trust and structure that results from the conflict – either good or bad;
  • Perform is when the group now sets about it’s work having found the new level of trust and structure.

Conflict comes in that “Storm” phase and it can be uncomfortable and unsettling. But, the way the group comes out of that “Storm” phase will set a new “norm,” which will be the basis of the performance of the group. It also sets a culture of how that group will deal with conflict. Groups will go through that process more than once. How we go through that process sets a tone for our group.

Finally, here are 3 steps for leaders to manage conflict (from the “Smart Church Management” blog):

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate – so much unhealthy conflict can be avoided by good communication. Additionally, healthy conflict is more likely to happen where there is good communication;
  2. Confront the issue – when things are “swept under the carpet,” a toxic culture emerges. Having an open culture of authenticity creates a healthy environment for good conflict;
  3. A Structured Feedback Process – it’s so important that leaders have forums for feedback. This creates a culture of accountability and openness. This is why FLBC has annual reviews for all pastors.

So, here are some questions for you about the team you lead:

  • Are you going through any conflict at the moment? What level is it?
  • Identify a previous conflict in your group. What level was it? How was it resolved? What culture of conflict did it create?
  • Consider a time in your current team or a previous team where you saw conflict resolved poorly. What went wrong? What was the outcome?
  • Consider a time in your current team or a previous team where you saw conflict resolved well. What went well? What was the outcome?

“Everyone really does win when a leader gets better.” (Bill Hybels)

God said to the Israelites, “Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:15)

Lord, help us not to fear conflict but to be agents of your “ministry of reconciliation” so that Your Kingdom continues to march on. In the powerful Name of Jesus. Amen