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Creating an Atmosphere of Constructive Conflict

Posted in Christian Leadership Matters, Constructive Conflict, Professional Church Worker Experiences, Team, Team Building, Trust, and Values

Concerned Member: “People are upset with some of the decisions you as a Board have made these past 6 months! A number of people have confided with me that if things don’t change, they’re going to leave the church!”

Faithful Board Member: “Who are those people? What, specifically, is their concern?”

Concerned Member: “Well, I can’t tell you because it was told to me in confidence, but they all want things to change!”

Most people are uncomfortable with conflict. I, too, am not a fan of high-level conflict and prefer to avoid it where possible. But conflict is all around us. Sometimes there’s conflict even when no one’s talking; and that can be the worst kind! In a culture that seems to relish “all-or-nothing” extremism; a culture that “knows” the position “I” represent is the right one (and “yours” is not just wrong, but EVIL), do we really want to invite conflict into our ministry teams and Boards?

And I say, “Yes, we DO want the right kind of conflict. It’s healthy, important, and will serve Christ and His Church in healthy ways.” HOWEVER, we need an atmosphere of Constructive Conflict.

What does this mean?

I believe, teach and confess that a leader of a ministry team or Board (or a business) must create an atmosphere of constructive conflict. The key word here is “constructive.” Conflict, by definition, is neither bad nor good. The “goodness” or “badness” of conflict depends on intent and outcome. The wise leader creates an atmosphere that encourages healthy conflict so that the mission of Christ can be more fully realized.

How would you characterize your ministry meetings? Are they: boring or exciting? . . . motivating or demotivating? . . . productive or a waste of time? . . . four hours long and nothing decided or 45 minutes and God says: “Well done thou good and faithful servants!”?

Four reasons Constructive Conflict is important:

  1. Constructive Conflict stimulates creativity by giving everyone a safe platform from which to speak. (People will be excited to serve.)
  2. Constructive Conflict creates Ministry momentum and group synergy. When done well, constructive conflict brings out the best in a group and creates intense camaraderie within the team.  (The ministry team accomplishes their goals.)
  3. Constructive Conflict allows important and stressful issues to be openly resolved. (Problems don’t fester.)
  4. Constructive Conflict establishes a more emotionally healthy and spiritually mature ministry. (Problems are dealt with immediately, honestly, and in Christ-honoring ways.)

Here is a quote from the Master Leadership Teacher, Patrick Lencioni about constructive conflict:

The Trouble With Teamwork (Lencioni) – “CEOs who go to great lengths to avoid conflict often do so believing that they are strengthening their teams by avoiding destructive disagreement. This is ironic, because what they are really doing is stifling productive conflict and pushing important issues that need to be resolved under the carpet where they will fester. Eventually, those unresolved issues transform into uglier and more personal discord when executives grow frustrated at what they perceive to be repeated problems. What CEOs and their teams must do is learn to identify artificial harmony when they see it, and incite productive conflict in its place.This is a messy process, one that takes time to master. But there is no avoiding it, because to do so makes it next to impossible for a team to make real commitment.”

Five Principles on creating an atmosphere of constructive conflict:

Principle 1: Create an atmosphere of TRUST!

There is nothing more important for a ministry team than trust. (This was a topic of a Two-Part Blog called Building Leadership Trust.) Unless the leader establishes genuine and deep organizational trust, constructive conflict cannot happen. You might have conflict without establishing trust, but not constructive conflict.

Principle 2: Understanding is more important than agreement.

Unhealthy conflict often begins because the real issue is not fully understood. The first objective in discussing issues is to understand the other side of the issue. Some people have difficulty outlining their ideas succinctly. Others have (what one professor of mine called) fuzzy thinking. Still others might have high emotional content but are low on factual data. To fully understand people we need to get to know them; we understand what they “mean” rather than what they “say.”

I had a Board member that would periodically summarize the issues being discussed. He did this for three reasons: First, to make sure he understood the real issue being discussed. Second, to help insure that everyone else understood the real issue the same way. Third, to help move the discussion toward healthy conclusion. I adopted that tactic when leading and have found it very helpful.

Principle 3: Be the “adult” in the room.

Have you ever had a conflict become an explosion? . . . or a team member have an emotional break-down? . . . have you experienced uncontrollable emotion (anger-to-rage, tearful frustration, expressed your seething resentment) as the leader? We are emotional creatures and for some, exercising emotional control is difficult.

Several thoughts:

1) It’s not helpful to view this as a moral problem. It could be and must be addressed if it is. But often there’s something else going on. I’m an huge advocate of Christian Counseling; a good counselor can help you understand what’s going on that makes emotional control difficult. It can REALLY HELP! Just as you are a professional in your occupation, so is a good therapist (call your District or denominational office for a referral).

2) We all “blow-it” sometimes. When you do, “own it,” apologize, take steps to rectify where possible, and move on. Do NOT allow mistakes to define your future; this is where confession/absolution is immediately practical. Model the behavior you as a Christian leader seek to cultivate in others.

3) Practice emotional distance regarding strongly felt issues. Keep your passion, but as much as possible separate how you feel from what is right and good. This takes practice. Sometimes how we feel is not the same thing as what is right. Be mindful of your feelings and lead according to rational plans and objectives (rather than leading with feelings). I am NOT saying feelings are bad (they are, in fact, a phenomenal blessing of God!). Feelings are like potential energy; our rational mind directs that energy toward healthy objectives. Without that mindful directive, our emotional energy can get out of control. (Believe me, I know this from experience!)

4) Work with a Coach. A Coach is NOT a psychologist or therapist, but with your Coach you can establish goals, discover new approaches for healthy leadership responses, and find an encouraging accountability partner for a time. I have several tools we can use to help you establish healthy leadership skills, and we can work together toward accomplishing your objectives.

Principle 4: Keep the “main thing” the main thing.

Your objective as leader is to create an atmosphere of constructive conflict. You WANT people to voice disagreement, share contrary ideas, ask for details and pick apart plans. BUT, you want the conflict to be CONSTRUCTIVE to your objectives. You want what is BEST for your Church or School or Business. Therefore you want every possible solution to be laid out on the table so you, as a group, can make informed and wise decisions about how to proceed. The “main thing” is NOT the conflict but the solution. The “main thing” is NOT “your way” or “my way,” but discerning what solution will allow us to achieve the goal for which we were called heavenward in Christ. As the leader (or in a vacuum of leadership, I urge you to take the lead in this), keep the discussion (and the conflict) constructive, always moving toward accomplishing the mission of your organization. Too many people have an emotional need to win even if it means the organization loses. Christian leaders create an atmosphere that to win means to move the cause of Christ forward. Keep your eyes on the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)!

Principle 5: Discern the real issue.

Good leaders create an atmosphere of constructive conflict. So, if you’re going to generate conflict of any kind, make sure the conflict is focused on the right thing. It’s your job as the leader to guide the team through constructive conflict. This is especially true in an organization that is new to constructive conflict or that show signs of organizational dysfunction. Start, of course, by building trust (see Principle 1 and Building Leadership Trust).

Principle 5 is about the importance of discerning the REAL issue(s). I suggest taking things slowly, especially at first. Before you encourage creative and constructive conflict, make sure you have the right issue on the table. WRITE IT DOWN. Make the topic visible to everyone (via powerpoint or white board). Modify what’s written as the discussion evolves. Always make sure people are on topic, everyone is heard, their opinions valued, and the conversation is directed toward resolution.

If “off-topic” issues are raised, establish the agreement with your team that a record is kept and those “off-topic” items will be a topic on a future agenda. It is of paramount importance that teams accomplish everything possible on the previously written/approved agenda. To do otherwise will be a recipe for chaos.

What is the “real issue”? In medicine, a patient’s symptoms could be a lot of things; there might be an 80% chance it’s the flu, but there’s a 5% chance the symptoms point to Malaria. So, the good doctor starts asking questions and running tests.

The issues being brought up at a meeting might be the “real” issue, but it’s also possible that the presenting issue might be a symptom. The wise leader asks questions and runs tests to discern the real issue. And this sometimes takes time, but it will be time very well spent!

As you can read above, I highly respect Patrick Lencioni and his leadership approaches. This blog article is the third of what will be 6 or so articles applying Patrick Lencioni’s principles from his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. If you haven’t read my first two blogs, please do so as they will be the foundation of all the other articles in this series. TRUST is the most fundamental principle for building strong teams. Trust is in our wheelhouse as members of The Church.

Everything is built on Trust (Week 1 and 2). This week, Constructive Conflict. Next week I’ll write on the importance of Commitment over Consensus . Next, the topic of Accountability (which is more important than Ambiguity). And finally (in this series of articles) creating a Results Oriented organization.  

If you have suggestions, stories, or would like to engage in constructive conflict, please do so!

Until next week. . .

Dr. Phil Pledger is The Higher Calling Coach and writes a blog entitled Christian Leadership Matters each week. Through his blog and coaching practice, Dr. Pledger seeks to help Professional Church Workers discover and enhance the leadership skills needed to make positive changes in their lives and in the ministry they serve. The goal is to find new ways to meet challenges, overcome roadblocks, and to find joy in serving Christ and His Church.

Click TheHigherCallingCoach.com to sign up for Christian Leadership Matters.  If you would like to set up a no-cost/no-obligation consultation or would like to ask a question, email Dr. Phil at: Phil@TheHigherCallingCoach.com.

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