May 042012

The last of the six key questions for healthy teams is about something most people prefer to avoid: conflict. But conflict is not always something to be avoided or resolved. If we engage in conflict in healthy ways, we unlock the power of teams to solve problems and create innovative ways to minister to the people we are called to serve.

Cognitive conflict–the conflict of ideas–is to be expected and encouraged. It is good and normal for different people to have different opinions about how to go about doing things. That’s why conflict is normal in a team. It is beneficial for teams to spend time discussing different options for any problem, even if everyone seems to have the same opinion.

Unhealthy conflict occurs when a team member speaks, acts or thinks against another person’s character, or when another perceives this to be so. It occurs when one or more team members allow pride and self-centeredness to overrule the love and respect which we are called by God to show one another. In other words, unhealthy conflict is another word for sin. Often we are not aware of  the subtleties and expression that combine to form a problem.

One result of unhealthy personal conflict is that it shuts down the healthy conflict of ideas. If left unresolved, it will undermine the unity and trust of a team. That’s why every team needs to talk about this question: how will we handle conflict? It is really several questions:

1. How will we engage in healthy conflict? Will we be open and honest, and speak our opinions respectfully? Will we keep our conflict at the level of ideas and refrain from judging motives when we have different opinions? Will we take time to discuss all sides of an issue, listen well, and draw out the quieter person?

2. How will we prevent unhealthy conflict? God’s Word provides guidance that can help us to answer this question: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29) “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2). Discuss how you will take these Scriptural principles and apply them in your team.

3. What will we do with unhealthy conflict? Though your team may make a commitment to not let conflict of ideas devolve into a conflict of persons, it is inevitable that sin will rear its ugly head within your relationships at some point in time. Then, what will you do? Your team should make a covenant with one another to resolve sinful conflict in biblical ways–carefully confront one another about sin (Matthew 18:15-17), readily seek forgiveness (Matthew 5:23-24) and lovingly offer forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8).

Each of the six questions, Mission, Goals, Roles, Communication, Decision-making, & Conflict are critical issues for teams to consider and develop agreement upon as they work together. Some teams will have quite different answers to these questions than others–there is no one “right” answer. However, each team should develop a shared understanding the ground rules for their own team. In addition, your team’s answers may change over time. This is normal and to be expected, but never assume that your teammates know the ground rules have changed–check-in together periodically to help you stay on track together.

The Team Charter is a helpful tool for answering the six questions. Check it out, and stay tuned for our next series of articles on the qualities of a healthy team.

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