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.

Thus engaging conflict over ideas without digressing into some sort of relationship conflict, especially when handling the kind of topics that senior leadership teams do, is quite the challenge. Just as we offered several tips for cultivating task-oriented conflict, we offer tips to manage relational conflict well when it arises.

  1. Don’t freak out. When decision stakes are high, individuals’ points of view are shaped by differing (usually taken-for-granted) values, belief systems, or interests. When more about the problem is unknown than known—just as in nearly every decision made by a senior leadership team—relationship conflict is bound to surface.
  2. Acknowledge the “elephant in the room” by addressing awkwardness or a conversation that has crossed the line. Pause the conversation to address the tension.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions and to the emotions of others. If you experience a strong emotion internally, or notice that someone else is, acknowledge it, and allow each person to express what they’re feeling and why. Treat one another’s feelings and perspectives as legitimate topics of concern and conversation.
  4. If you are offended by what someone has said, consider alternative interpretations, and be willing to offer the benefit of the doubt. Seek to not be offended.
  5. Engage in enough conversation so that your team can either resolve the conflict fully—if that can be done quickly—or get back to its work while leaving the conflict to more fully address it later. Get back to doing work together as soon as possible, without sweeping the conflict under the rug.
  6. If the conflict is not resolved quickly, work it out fully in individual conversations between the persons with the conflict until they can come to a place of reconciliation.
  7. Learn from it. Take some time in your next team meeting (or sooner, if necessary) to revisit the conflict. Ask all team members for their thoughts and feelings about the conflict. Discuss what your team learned from it—about one another’s “touch points,” about what it looks like to love and respect one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and about how you can best work together in the future. When relevant, capture what you learned in your team ground rules.
  8. Pat yourselves on the back. You’re using conflict to learn how to work better together and how to love each other well in the process, which builds authentic trust and true community.

Welcoming, cultivating, and effectively managing conflict is essential for a team to thrive in its decision-making work. When people have the opportunity to air their ideas and hesitations in an environment where their input is welcomed and truly considered, they are likely to unite around the decision that is made and walk out of the room unified in direction.

How does your group or team manage conflict? Sign up today to be part of the Cultivating Thriving Small Groups Study to get an objective view of what’s happening in your groups, and apply data-driven insights to figure out what to stop doing, keep doing, and start doing to help your ministry thrive.

—Ryan Hartwig and Warren Bird are authors of Teams That Thrive: Five Disciplines of Collaborative Church Leadership. This article was excerpted from Teams That Thrive with permission.

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