Coming to terms with ministry-related conflict

Boxing colleagues

Used with permission.

Have you ever thought about how many choices you and your team make in a week? And every time you make a choice you set the stage for conflict. By choosing one of the possibilities, you have excluded all others and their future consequences. People will mourn to some degree the loss of what they had hoped for. They may also disagree with the outcome because they have different values, goals, preferences and risk tolerances (or have prioritized them differently). Sometime over the next few months I will address some specific aspects of conflict:

  • disagreements between ministry leaders
  • team members who take issue with their leaders
  • Christian commentators who critique Christian ministries

Today I want to address how leaders receive and respond to conflict. When you are being criticized or challenged, how should you handle it? I’m writing about conflict related to leadership decisions rather than to the leader personally. I’ve already dealt with criticism of a leader’s personal integrity.

Why conflict?

It is pretty rare that a person delights in causing conflict, so don’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that a person who objects is just a trouble-maker. When conflict erupts, it is often because the decision involves issues that are very important to someone.

The greatest potential for severe conflict is when there are long-term consequences linked to core values about which people are passionate. The more irreversible the decision, the higher the stakes and the more strongly people who object will object. You won’t be able to resolve the conflict until you understand what the opposers are passionate about.

Ask probing questions that will get at their underlying motivations and concerns:

  • Please help me to understand why you think this is not a good idea
  • Can you think of another acceptable way? What makes it acceptable?
  • If we step back from this decision and consider the bigger picture, do we agree on what we are trying to achieve by this decision?

Often when there is disagreement on the means, you can find agreement on the goal, the principle or the overall concept. Back away from the concrete proposal and get agreement on the abstract aspects of the decision. Once you’ve done that, you can then set the criteria for a good decision and start working on specific proposals.

The goal is not to be conflict-free, but rather to use conflict productively. If there is not even any mild conflict (no constructive feedback and no alternate opinions), then the leader has likely created an unhealthy atmosphere, stifling what people are thinking (or perhaps has a team of unimaginative people).

The challenge for a leader is to overcome any negative personal reactions to conflict and dispassionately consider the issues that have been raised. The way some people object can be highly offensive, and that is a separate issue that must be addressed, but the first priority is to deal with the decision that is at hand and get it made. To do this in the face of opposition, a leader must focus on the content of the objection or alternative proposal, not the way it was delivered.

Seeking conflicting ideas

Thoughtful writers such as Kouzes and Posner (The Leadership Challenge), Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline), Jim Collins (Good To Great), and James MacGregor Burns (Leadership) have made the case that diversity (not just multiplicity) of persons improves the quality of decisions and raises the intelligence of the group beyond any individual intelligence. It really is true that “Two heads are better than one.”

Where there is no guidance the people fall, but in abundance of counselors there is victory….Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed.
Proverbs 11:14, 15:22;

Burns points out that leaders should not passively wait for conflicting ideas to be brought forward, but should actively seek them out.  Conflicting ideas and views help leaders see the truth about themselves and their organizations. Senge writes that a commitment to the truth means “a relentless willingness to root out the ways we limit or deceive ourselves from seeing what is, and to continually challenge our theories of why things are the way they are.”  The resulting benefit is a more successful organization.

Leaders do not need a team of their own clones. The objective in building a team is not to find people who think exactly as the leader does because, if everyone thinks alike, then the team is not needed for decision making, only for work capacity to implement the decisions.

Research by Meredith Belbin (he’s written a number of books on the topic) shows that teams of similar people with similar traits can perform well if circumstances suit their strengths, but in the long-term they cannot deal as effectively with the full range of problems encountered as a mixed team can. The cost of having a team of people who are different from each other is conflict. Some team members will be out-of-the-box thinkers, others will be analysts. It is in inherent in the team’s make-up that they will have conflict. They need to learn how to work through it as much as their leader does.

Using conflict for good

Conflict being inevitable, the next issue is the choice a leader makes when conflict arises. Whether or not a leader is willing to listen and act upon the advice of others is a test of the leader’s character. Listening to advice and contrary opinions is not always a pleasant experience. Leaders can prepare by identifying their ‘hot buttons’ so they can better control their emotions when their ‘buttons’ are pushed. Without such preparation, leaders may take the conflict as a personal attack even when the other party has no such intentions.

It is essential, especially if the leader feels attacked, that leaders check their assumptions about the other person’s motives when voicing objections and alternatives. They can be driven by self-interest, personal dislike of the leader, a desire to explore all options or play the devil’s advocate, or concern for the mission and the welfare of the ministry. Regardless of their motivation though, they may still have a good idea. Ask some questions that will move you from an emotional to a logical response:

  • What is your criteria for a good solution?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • If we can satisfy the concerns you have raised, is there any other reason why you would not agree with this decision?

Leaders should also be aware that the conflict’s presenting issue may not be the real issue. There could be a deeper issue and the leader will have to listen hard and probe carefully to uncover it. For example, the conflict may appear to be about if a thing should be done, but the issue may really be about how it should be done. The parties may share the same generic value (say, integrity) but define it differently. So how something is done may offend one person’s definition of integrity yet be acceptable according to another person’s definition of integrity. Burns noted that a leader must be sensitive not to the team’s generic values, but to the particular manner in which the values are manifested.

The issue then is how to work through conflict harmoniously to arrive at the best decision.

Leader as a team member

Rather than being over a team, which could cause some leaders to see a challenge as a win/lose proposition, it is helpful if the team leader considers himself or herself as a team member with a specialized role. Taking your place as a member of the team reduces the confrontational nature of conflict (“you vs. them”) and turns it into a collaborative problem-solving exercise (“We need to solve this”).

This does not mean that leaders should surrender leadership. Christian leaders must pass along what God has revealed to them, but in Experiencing God, the Blackabys say leaders should not have to “sell the vision or twist arms to get it accepted” if it is of God because the Holy Spirit will confirm it one way or another. In Spiritual Leadership, Sanders says the leader introduces the vision, but team members (who may see things differently) can refine how it is understood and improve its implementation while maintaining the integrity of what God revealed to the leader. Rather than selling the vision, leaders need to teach it and keep it visible. A clearly defined mission and a regular reaffirmation of the ministry’s core values and messaging (brand promises, tagline, etc.) are key to the team’s success.

A practical way to handle conflict

Conflict will most easily be overcome when everyone in the group is committed to the principle that what is right is more important than who is right. Leaders need to elicit good ideas from everyone. It does not matter who comes up with the right idea, just that someone does. So leaders should work hard to build team support for judging ideas on the strength of the idea and not the person who raised it.

Live in harmony with one another.
Romans 12:16

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Thoughts on Coming to terms with ministry-related conflict

  1. Scott Cochrane

    Great post John. One way I deal with confict on our team is to first let all the opinons spill out onto the table. I encourage a vigorous exchange of viewpoints. Then if no concensus is being reached, I’ll ask each person to argue the opposite point from the one they actually hold. By verbalizing an opposing viewpoint it helps people understand, if not agree with, another perspective.

    Reply
    1. John PelloweJohn Pellowe Post author

      Thanks for a very practical suggestion, Scott. It’s great when people are willing to challenge their own cherished positions!! It seems to me people would be more open to new ideas as a result.

      Reply

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