Dissent and conflict in effective teams

A guest post

Conflict is exhausting, conflict is divisive, conflict can cause emotional or relational damage that is hard to undo. I am a lawyer and football (soccer) coach. Those worlds are built around differences of opinion and in those worlds, I thrive on robust debate. Yet, when I first joined a cross-cultural mission organisation 10 years ago, I found myself in a team where people were reluctant to disagree, and any challenge was quickly labelled as conflict. I spent years feeling like I was keeping my mouth shut all the while being told I was too “heart on my sleeve”. I found my myself trying to figure out what role disagreement and challenge should play and whether good conflict was a skill we could all get better at. 

We talk a lot about unity and harmony in Christian organisations, so I went back to the bible to remind myself what it had to say. I was struck by what I think is something of a paradox. 

We are definitely called to unity and harmony, to live at peace wherever possible (Ephesians 4:3, Proverbs 20:3, Romans 12:18). Yet the bible also exhorts us to seek and speak truth, to rebuke wrong and even gives accounts of righteous anger and godly leaders disagreeing with each other (Proverbs 19:25, Galatians 2:14, Acts 15:39). The are many of stories of those who dissent and disagree being used powerfully by God such as the two spies in Numbers 13 and 14, Daniel and his friends, and the prophets who argue with kings. These men stand alone and are prepared to disagree. There is clearly a virtue in being prepared to be different for the sake of the kingdom.

If you are a leader of any kind of team you will know doubt understand this image and probably have been that guy in the middle. We’ve made the plan, done the work, talked to a few people we trust, we are just ready to get everyone excited and get on with putting the plan into action. But how should he engage all those other members of the team? I know I have thought all those thoughts. Figuring out how to deal with unexpressed disagreement prompted me to do some research. 

On the one hand you would expect Western corporate leadership books to be unafraid of conflict. And this is indeed what I found in books like The Challenge Culture. Nigel Travis believes that the ability to create a culture where it is okay for people to challenge leaders is essential for survival in a chaotic world. In No! The power of disagreement in a world that wants to get along, Charlan Nemeth illustrates the power of dissent to protect against group think. She argues that consensus narrows thinking while dissent diversifies and strengthens thinking. 

Nemeth and Travis’ arguments about creating space for dissent are compelling. Even Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map which is in large part designed to avoid intercultural conflict in business reminds us that disagreement is in fact possible in all cultures even if what might work in one culture will not work in another. When I look at an organisation as diverse as a multinational mission agency, I can’t help but think that the existence of a team of really different people who never disagree is probably a sign that something is wrong.

Is it just the secular business world where dissent is important, or might there be a role for it in a Christian fellowship seeking to be characterised by peace and harmony? Jay Matenga, an intercultural Maori, missionary leader, and missiologist, writes about the Maori word whakatete in his article Growing through Tension. The word whakatete refers to quarrelling or dissent, or to create tension, but used as verb it can also mean to strengthen or prop up. While we think of the Maori as warring tribal peoples with a desire to dominate each other, Matenga describes Maoris as people who make room for robust discussion. He says they have a great deal of tolerance for difference and tension and engage in sharing of each other’s narratives until a common understanding emerges. Permanently severed relationships are an undesirable, rare and extreme occurrence. He contrasts this with the western mindset which he thinks is intensely uncomfortable with tension. He says “their individualism allows them to go separate ways to resolve the tension. Nowadays, it does not take a lot for relationships to be severed in order to relieve tension.” Matenga sees tension, disagreement and dissent not just as important for creative and innovative business practices but vital for personal growth and Christian maturity.

Even in a book as conflict-free sounding as The Peace Maker, Ken Sande reminds us that conflict is not necessarily bad. He says: “In fact the Bible teaches that some differences are natural and beneficial. Since God has created us as unique individuals, human beings will often have different opinions, convictions, desires, perspectives, and priorities. Many of these differences are not inherently right or wrong; they are simply the result of God-given diversity and personal preferences. When handled properly, disagreement in these areas can stimulate productive dialogue, encourage creativity, promote helpful change, and generally make life more interesting. Therefore, although we should seek unity in our relationships, we should not demand uniformity. Instead of avoiding all conflicts or demanding that others always agree with us, we should rejoice in the diversity of God’s creation and learn to accept and work with people who simply see things differently than we do.”

How to do it better

The first key thing for me was realising that when we have the power, we also have the responsibility, even if it is uncomfortable. As leaders and as organisations there is a danger that we send people away without being heard because they raise concerns or share hurts or fears in ways that we don’t feel comfortable with. I’d love all my conversations to be light and fun or serious but gentle. But often that’s not likely to be the case. People dealing with their own fears, frustrations, pride, or ego or who have been hurt are rarely easy to listen to but are no less deserving of our attention or leadership. Often, we are way too quick to declare “you didn’t say it right” and stop listening. To tell the dissenter to get better at dissenting rather than sit in the uncomfortable conversation listen to their concerns.

Recently I sat in a meeting room with an angry Dad of one of the players in the football club I work for and was reminded of the power of being the leader who really listens. It was an uncomfortable conversation. It started with a conversation about his child’s involvement in a bullying incident. The child’s coach had made some unwise comments and the Dad was clearly ready to let all of his frustrations and anger about everything that had happened in the last six months come out. I sent the player, coach and manager back to the field and for the next forty-five minutes probed and clarified until the anger dissolved to reveal the hurt, frustration and fear that was driving it. He wanted what was best for his child and felt like people weren’t being honest with him and every time he raised concerns, he was treated like he was being difficult or a troublemaker. Could he have done it better and been less confrontational? Absolutely, but given how strong the emotions he was feeling were, it’s no surprise he couldn’t. 

There is a quote circulating on social media by Sarah Maddux:

“When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you. Remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise for them it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege not increased objectivity on your part. Stay humble.”

So now in my leadership I’m trying to do the five following things

  • Changing the mindset

This involves valuing dissent and accepting that conflict is not something to be feared but is inevitable and can be an opportunity to grow. It is also about separating out task conflict from relationship conflict.

  • Changing the vocabulary:

Given how many people I have met within mission organisations who have described themselves as a conflict avoider or told me how much they hate conflict, maybe we need a different word. I can barely begin to describe the looks I used to get when I told people I didn’t mind conflict. But I think when we say conflict we are talking about different ends of a spectrum of disagreement or debate. I’m not quite sure what the word is yet. Disagreement isn’t strong enough; challenge doesn’t allow for the times when emotions are strong or its not about confronting leadership. And I’m not Kiwi enough to appropriate Maori culture so I can’t use whakatete in everyday use. But we need a way to capture the value of diversity, disagreement and dissent; of challenge and robust debate without the connotations of broken relationships that come with the word conflict for so many people.

  • Valuing thought diversity:

As we embrace a diversity of people, that brings with it a diversity of thought, experience and opinion. We need to be ready for two things: the increased potential for conflict and different ways to engage with and potentially heal from that conflict. Erin Meyer introduces us to a wise Bahamian proverb:

“To engage in conflict, one does need to bring a knife that cuts but a needle that sews.” … what sews nicely in one culture may cut in another. But with a little effort and creativity, you can find many ways to encourage and learn from alternative points of view while safeguarding relationships. 

  • Being prepared to be uncomfortable:

As I reflect on these last few reminders. I feel challenged that being a leader the burden is on me to make it possible for others to disagree or dissent, to have opinions or experiences different from mine and still be heard. 

A strong diverse, creative, effective team will require compromise and a willingness to work together but it is also about more than just being nice and getting along. We leaders need to find space for the dissenters and embrace disagreement. We need to not fear conflict but find ways to really hear the diverse voices in the group and to be prepared to rebuild relationships when things do escalate. 


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