When we allow unresolved conflict to travel up the organization, we become part of the problem.
Whenever and wherever you have people, you will have conflict.
Here’s the thing about conflict: some (most?) of the time, it doesn’t get resolved.
(I know. I was just as shocked as you are.)
Miscommunication, unmet expectations, and differing perspectives manifest into passive aggression, opposition, competition, and division.
Like water, unresolved conflict in an organization flows in whatever path promises the least resistance.
And if you manage people, you know which direction unresolved conflict usually seeks to flow in your organization:
Rather than pressing into the conflict and attempting first to resolve it directly with the other staffer or team member, members on your team might choose first to get you involved. Tell me if you’ve ever heard these lead-ins:
“Hey—I need a safe place to process something. Can I get on your calendar?”
“Sometime when you’ve got a few minutes, I need your advice on something that I’m dealing with.”
“Could you give me your objective opinion on something? I don’t know that I’m seeing this clearly.”
Or, my personal favorite:
“I need to vent for a little bit.”
Each of these sound like the heading of a relatively innocent and genuine conversation—and sometimes, even sound flattering. Because right out of the gate, you’re the trusted sage—you’re the objective and wise third party who apparently has built a reputation for untangling the gnarliest of relational knots and navigating the rockiest harbors of personal dynamics that creep up on your team.
But before you know it, your innocent listening becomes advice-giving… and then, full-blown enmeshment. By the end of the meeting, you’ve gone from an objective outsider to covertly triangulated between two people. And if you get really confident (or prideful), you may even have taken it upon yourself to initiate a conversation with the other party—often before he or she even knew that there was a conflict.
You were the puppet master. But now you’re the puppet. In trying to pull the right strings, you got your own strings entangled with everyone else’s.
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There’s one question that can save you from falling into that insidious trap. And you need to ask it clearly, confidently, and early—preferably right after one of those all-too-familiar lead-ins.
Here it is:
“Have you talked to him/her about this?”
Getting an honest answer to this question is crucial before you say yes to the meeting or before you agree to hear anything else on the matter.
“Before you go any further, let me stop you for a second and just ask: Have you talked to him/her about this?”
If they answer, “yes,” ask them to tell you that story and listen closely. Often times that “yes” turns into “Well, I tried to, but…” or “I think I’d just make things worse” or “They wouldn’t listen/understand.”
Each of these excuses implies the necessity of your involvement and/or intervention.
If that’s what your instinct tells you to do, resist that urge, and put it back to them. If it turns out that they didn’t really talk to them candidly and fully, point that out. Steer them back in. Push the unresolved conflict back down.
And if they simply answer, “no,” set the expectation for them to go back to that person and share with them as candidly and fully as they are willing to share with you. You may even want them to try that prior to them continuing to share with you.
Push the unresolved conflict back down.
In this way, as you push unresolved conflict down the organization rather than allow it to go up, you’ll establish an expectation and a culture:
Being on your team means dealing with unresolved conflict directly, candidly, and fully… first.
Of course, the opposite is also true if you fail to do this. You’ll find yourself implicitly setting a culture where conflict can only be properly dealt with if you or some other supervisor gets involved. Precious time is spent (wasted). People are taught to triangulate and politicize rather than growing as they learn how to deal with unresolved conflict themselves. And you’ll be pouring gas on that fire.
There’s nothing wrong with needing advice or seeking an outside perspective on unresolved conflict. People are complex, and dynamics can be tricky. But when we allow unresolved conflict to travel up the organization, and we prop ourselves up as sole mediator of any and all conflict, we become part of the problem.
Our Staffing & Structure Review process helps a church position its team to best fit both the ministry and the individuals involved. From organizational charts to job descriptions to governance and leadership development, this process will help your church staff achieve its vision. Get more details here.