Effectively Manage Group Conflict
Image: Malte Mueller/Getty

Effectively Manage Group Conflict

Conflict can be the fuel your team (or group) needs to maximize its impact.

The genius of teams are their collaborative potential. But to truly collaborate, a team must be willing to go about its most important work while eliciting and embracing conflict and debate over ideas while managing relational conflict.

Collaborative conversations require team members to not only advocate their own ideas, interests, and positions with passion and resolve, but also to pursue a process of inquiry to explore others’ interests and ideas. However, inquiry is certainly not easy. In these conversations, authenticity and vulnerability reign supreme as the group seeks to create innovative solutions to their problems. In such discussions, conflict naturally arises, and the team embraces and utilizes it to make better decisions.

“Conflict doesn’t destroy strong teams because strong teams focus on results,” argue Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, authors of Strengths Based Leadership. Instead, strong teams welcome healthy conflict, for it is the catalyst of extraordinary performance, and manage it in such a way that it does not destroy the team. Certainly this is a tricky balance, and another stay-on-the-road-between-two-ditches situation.

Task-Based Conflict

First, we’ll discuss how to cultivate the kind of conflict that fuels great team performances. To spur healthy conflict, we suggest that members of leadership teams:

  1. Vigorously solicit critiques of plans, decisions, and assumptions guiding decision making.
  2. Model respectful, assertive, thoughtful, and honest critiques of ministry ideas and plans, and invite others to do the same of your own ideas and plans.
  3. Celebrate group members who say the hard thing even when it is uncomfortable to do so.
  4. Cultivate a norm (expectation) of: “If you see something, say it.” Don’t allow group members to keep their thoughts about a proposed direction to themselves, even if they are critical or contrary. They at least deserve to be heard and considered, even if dismissed later.
  5. Hold group members accountable to that norm. If you find out later that someone was able to “see around the corner” on an issue but didn’t voice that perspective, confront it, first privately and then perhaps with the rest of the team.
  6. Assign one or more people to play the role of “devil’s advocate” in every meeting. Make it that person’s (or group’s) job to search for problems, shortcomings, and oversights with the group’s decisions and plans. Rotating this role among team members reduces the likelihood of resentment toward a well-functioning devil’s advocate.
  7. On a regular basis, go around the table and ask each team member to identify one area in which the team, church, or ministry could improve. Require every person to answer the question. Then, either talk about those issues immediately, or put them on a future agenda.

In any case, don’t shut down this kind of conflict. Encourage it. It is the fuel your team needs to maximize its impact.

Relationship-Based Conflict

A caution is in order here. Not all conflict is good. Studies overwhelmingly suggest that task conflict is good, whereas affective, or relationship, conflict is bad. In other words, team members should challenge each other’s ideas, interrogate one another’s beliefs and values, and willingly offer different perspectives while refraining from attacking others, or making snide, sarcastic comments in the process. On many teams, sarcastic jokes can become a norm, and though they appear innocent, those sideways comments often have a greater impact than thought.

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