Conflict and Trust

Let’s do the “Trust Pyramid” one last time. If there is to be trust between individuals, there must be confidence in each other’s character (who you are) and competence (what you can do).  If there is to be trust within a team, there must be confidence in common direction (where we’re going) and mutual cooperation (reaching our goal together).

Like climbing a mountain, the higher you climb on the Trust Pyramid, the farther you have to fall. All the hard work that goes into building trust between individuals and confidence in the team can be lost with a single misstep, one false move after so much effort.

The reality, however, is that some misstep is inevitable. Your leadership team will be challenged with unfavorable circumstances, misunderstandings, unmet expectations, strongly divided opinions, or succumb to the stress and fatigue that always accompanies the important work we do. A church might be blessed with leaders who bring to their work the highest levels of character and competence, the greatest commitment to common mission and cooperation. But count on it; something will go wrong. And, when it does, a team must manage one more level of trust if it is to survive: confidence in the ability of the system to handle conflict in an effective manner.

Unless your team members and the team as a whole trusts there is a “system” in place for handling difficulties, that the organization as a whole knows how to address problems and will not lose its character or sacrifice its direction when troubles arise, trust will be a fragile thing … the first victim of any approaching storm.

Embracing Conflict

Conflict can develop in a team for all manner of reasons: personality differences, a failure of character or competence on the part of a team member, an instance of poor judgment, lack of results, stress, differing opinions, external criticism that leads to internal fracture—name your poison. Some churches and church leadership teams expend their energies trying to manage these sources of conflict, hoping to prevent conflict, believing (apparently) that conflict is, itself, a sign of weakness and defeat.

I’m all for proactive prevention of conflict—so long as it doesn’t lead to the suppression of differences, denial of tensions, and a neurotic fear of conflict that causes more difficulties than conflict itself. But prevention should not be the goal of organizations, indicating (as it often does) a perspective on conflict that identifies conflict as the problem rather than as a symptom of other, more fundamental problems.

I suggest that it is far healthier for a team to anticipate conflict, plan for it, and develop strategies for managing it.

As a first step to this, teams need to recognize that some conflict is inevitable. Conflict isn’t a sign of team failure or lack of character or incompetent leadership. “Shit happens” as the bumper sticker reminds us. It does. Even in churches. Perhaps especially in churches.

Church leaders are especially prone to the crippling delusion that conflict shouldn’t happen to them because they are such exceptionally nice people! Of course, that ignores the fact that Jesus Christ—the perfect Son of God—dealt with significant conflict every day of his ministry, that every one of his Apostles (with the exception of John) died a violent death as a result of intense conflict, or that the church of the first century was riddled with conflict.

If, instead, conflict is embraced as a normal part of life—realizing that even the nicest people are required to navigate stormy waters on occasion—we are freed from the notion that conflict is inherently unfair or a sign of personal failing. We might even develop a perspective that sees conflict as the inevitable result of attempting to do work that matters. Such a perspective allows us to focus not on prevention (a noble but unrealistic goal), but on preparation.

Once we give up the illusion that conflict can be avoided, we need to see conflict for what it is: 

  1. a winter season in the naturally cyclical rhythm of life,
  2. an uncomfortable and sometimes painful process by which differences are recognized and addressed, and
  3. a symptom of some interpersonal problem that must be solved, resolved, or reconciled.

Far from something to be avoided or feared, conflict is necessary for health and effectiveness. What pain is to the nervous system and fever is to the immune system, conflict is to organizational systems. Neither pain, fever, nor conflict is particularly comfortable. None is an experience we look forward to and take pleasure from. But all are necessary feedback mechanisms by which more basic problems are discovered, identified, and addressed.

Without conflict, teams cannot be healthy. Without conflict, teams cannot be effective. Conflict indicates that the team is struggling in some more fundamental way. With a little wisdom and patience, conflict can show us where and how the team is struggling. Conflict is the necessary means of identifying organizational infections. It is the price we pay to make an effective difference, to address weaknesses that threaten our ability to do something that matters.

Managing Conflict

To push the somatic metaphor a bit further, conflict (like pain or fever) is a symptom, not a solution. It begs to be managed, directed, and treated. Left to itself, conflict can escalate to fevered levels that burn away trust, friendship, and teamwork. Only when conflict is guided, only when a process is in place that puts conflict to work for healthy ends, can a team develop confidence that—even when things go wrong—there is a way to put things right again.

There are at least four key factors involved in handling conflict effectively in the context of a team. All of them require that the team embrace conflict as inevitable, healthy, and necessary. And all of them must be put into place before significant conflict occurs. (Teams cannot wait for a conflict to explode before agreeing on essential “rules of engagement”—a roadmap for how conflicts within the team will be handled. The seeds of conflict resolution must be sown early—when the sun’s still shining—if they are to take meaningful root. It’s too late to build an effective conflict strategy if storm clouds are already building on the horizon.)

A conflict management philosphy that is understood and agreed on by all team members.

  1. At the least, this would mean that team members understand the bases of trust between individuals and within a team (the subject of this blog thread) and how the team is expected to regard the presence of conflict (the subject of this particular article).
  2. At the heart of this philosophy could be an assurance that:
    1. conflict is normal,
    2. it will be handled in a principled way when it arises in the team,
    3. resolving conflict is a prime value of the team, and
    4. such resolutions are not a distraction from the team’s work but a validation of it.
  3. This philosphy should make clear what the team’s goals are in resolution of conflict, and what sorts of conflictual behaviors are inappropriate. The classic “Conflict Grid” (“What I want” vs “What you want”) is a good place to start in educating a team about conflict goals and landmines. We expect people to be highly committed to their own and others’ objectives in any conflict situation on our team. Conflict behaviors like avoidance, competition, and appeasement are not appropriate because they demonstrate a lack of respect for self or others on the team … or a lack of engagement in the important work we’re doing.

    On the other hand, working towards real problem solving, making authentic efforts to resolve conflict with effective solutions, is the goal of the team.

A conflict management covenant that all members of the team sign and commit to respect. This could include a list of statements like:

  1. I am committed to the effectiveness of this team and to the accomplishment of our goals, and value this over getting my own way.
  2. We are a team and will treat each other accordingly, even when stresses, difficulties, and conflicts occur.
  3. I understand the kinds of conflict behaviors are expected of me (or are out-of-bounds to me) in times of conflict in this team. I agree to conduct myself accordingly.

Alternatively, this covenant could focus on Beatitude behavior (“I will practice poverty of Spirit and humility, even in conflict situations”), biblical teachings about how Christians treat “the enemy” (“I promise to pray for those I am in conflict with”), or biblical principles about personal behavior in the context of a team (“I commit to speak only what is helpful for building others up”).

The key is for everyone on the team to know the ground rules, to understand that everyone else knows those rules, and to commit themselves formally to observing those rules of engagement.

A conflict management process that is agreed upon by team members before a conflict occurs. This doesn’t have to be complicated or involved. It could mean little more than a commitment to following Matthew 18:15-17:

  1. Going to someone privately to air differences
  2. If that doesn’t resolve the conflict, taking someone else with you to repeat the conversation (see below—it needs to be a “designated” someone)
  3. If even that fails, take the conflict to the team and ask for group discernment.

Once again, the key here is that everyone is on the same page, everyone knows what is expected, everyone has a path to follow when conflicts arise.

A leadership structure for conflict management that specifies who is ultimately responsible for resolving conflicts among the team. Everything that precedes is dependent on this final point. Someone has to lead in conflict. There must be someone on the team who feels the responsibility for resolution, who evidences some competence with conflict management, and who has been empowered to find a resolution (forcing a resolution, if necessary). Without a designated leader in times of conflict, there can be little hope of productive resolution. 

To return one final time to the somatic metaphor, pain or fever signals that something is wrong in the body. But unless someone is found to treat the problem (“It’s time to go to the doctor”), unless someone is able to diagnose and prescribe for the problem (“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning”), and unless someone is empowered to see the problem through to a satisfactory conclusion (“You cannot be discharged until you take all your medicine”), the fever or pain will result in (often) tragic consequences.

It is a source of constant amazement to me that (in the relational sphere) so many people believe they can be both patient and doctor at the same time. I’ve worked with married couples who are at each other’s throat constantly. Yet each will insist that he or she knows exactly what should be done to fix the marriage (usually involving a change on the others behavior!).

Just because you are in a conflict doesn’t mean you have the knowledge or wisdom to diagnose and resolve the conflict.

The same is true of leadership teams. It is naïve to think that every person on a leadership team is equally equipped, adequately trained, sufficently self-aware, and suitably objective to manage a conflict—especially when they themselves are involved in the conflict. This is yet another instance where a clearly designated leader—someone in a “senior minister” role—can serve the church by exercising leadership in the context of conflict. Having someone capable, willing, and effective in leading through conflict is the single most important factor in creating trust in the “system.”

“System Trust”

This leads us to the final layer in the “Trust Pyramid.” I have used the word “Conflict” to label this layer (because I desperately needed a word starting with “C” to complete my alliterative scheme). But, in fact, I’m referring here to something broader than conflict or even conflict management.  What I’m really addressing is “System Trust”: a layer of trust that differs from trust in individuals (their character and competence) or in the team (commitment to common cause and cooperation). “System trust” is, essentially, confidence in the integrity of the organization and in its competence to handle problems effectively … confidence that even if team members falter or the entire team loses direction, there is a core to the organization itself (in this instance, the church and its leaders) that remains trustworthy and can address problems in an honorable and capable manner.

Think of this “system trust” as the ballast in the keel of a boat. Storms can blow and buffet the boat. Individual crewmen can fail to do their jobs. The boat may lose its rudder and simply run before the prevailing winds. But no matter how hard the boat tosses and turns, there is a feature—a substantial mass built into the very heart of the ship—that keeps the keel in the water and the deck facing the stars.

Although “system trust” is more complicated than I can discuss here, it boils down to how the organization handles problems, difficulties, and conflicts. A system that responds to storms with fear and panic will enjoy very low “system trust” from its people. On the other hand, a system that responds calmly to storms, that sees storms as simply another season of organizational life (to be managed and weathered rather than bemoaned and resented), and that brings effective tools to bear to ride out the storm and minimize damage will enjoy high “system trust” from its people.

In the long-term, leadership teams survive or fail on the basis of how “storms” are handled … how teams and team members conduct themselves when things go wrong. Nothing can destroy trust (and, thus, teams) quite as quickly and thoroughly as conflict. On the other hand, conflict done well—managed properly—can lead teams to new heights of trust: in each other and in the team as a system.

[Go to the first article in this series.]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.