Friday, April 25, 2014

Do You Make these 7 Leadership Mistakes When Dealing with Conflict?

Victor (not his real name) is a local church pastor who sought me out for a consultation. By the time we managed to work out a time to meet he'd been in conflict with some congregational members for eight months. He had been in his mid-sized congregation for three and a half years and thought everything was going well. That is, until he began confronting personal attacks, hearing about "secret" meetings, and noticing changes in some of his church leaders' behavior toward him.

After struggling for eight months and not getting anywhere, Victor starting seeking help in understanding what was going on and what to do about it. To his credit, Victor was also seeking to understand his own functioning in the midst of conflict. He started to recognize long-seated patterns in how he responded to the difficult experience at his church. It did not take long for Victor to name seven mistakes he was making in how he was dealing with conflict. Victor actually wrote down the list of the seven mistakes he was making and worked hard at consciously changing the way he was behaving.

Here are the seven leadership mistakes Victor identified and worked at correcting:

  1. Mistaking content of speech for emotional process. The personal attacks (unkind and unfounded) were hurtful, and Victor found himself obsessing over them. Many times he felt the need to respond to his accusers point for point. Realizing that responding to emotional process was more beneficial, Victor focused on the question, "What's really going on here?" Emotional process is less about what people say and more about how they are functioning.

  2. Failing to stay on message. Visionary leadership that leads to developmental change requires persistence of vision. For those who feel threatened by change and who fear the loss of the familiar and of what has been (or what used to be), reactivity is not far behind. Victor became aware of his tendency to downplay his vision in an attempt to assuage feelings of fear and anxiety on the part of those who were against the changes he was starting to make. He realized that when he, as leader, failed to practice persistence of vision, he let the more anxious persons in the system set the vision. Victor determined to communicate clearly, and more often, his vision for the church.

  3. Focusing on finding motive rather than on behavior. One major point of stuckness for Victor was trying to interpret the motives behind the worst detractors. Eventually he accepted that when people are under the influence of reactivity--often as a result of perceived threat--they act out. As Victor put it, "I realized they are not in their right state of mind." Rather than focusing on mind-reading and questioning people's motives, Victor began to observe how they were functioning. Doing so he was able to see how individuals were working out the anxiety of the larger system. This gave him more options for approaching individuals within the church.

  4. Taking it personally. The first three months of the conflict were the hardest for Victor. In retrospect he realized how personally he took the attacks, the resistance, and the lack of response on the part of so many. With a bit of perspective he was able to remember that the conflict he was experiencing was rather normative and "on schedule." At three years, the honeymoon was over. There were enough changes in several areas of church life that people's routines and habits were being challenged. At three years into his ministry he was starting to get serious about making deeper changes in pursuit of the visioning work he'd led the congregation. Given that, the church was "on schedule" for its first conflict with the relatively new pastor. Victor was able to accept that while the reactivity was directed at him, it was not all about him, personally. On his list he wrote, "Don't take it personally. It isn't (though some of the most anxious in the congregation will make it personal)." Of all the six mistakes leaders make, this one challenged Victor the most.

  5. Trying to go it alone. One tendency we face when dealing with conflict is to withdraw and isolate ourselves. That's natural, conflict results in uncomfortable feelings, stress, and often, psychosomatic symptomatology. When the fight-or-flight response gets triggered within us, most of us would rather flee. Victor had given into his conflict-avoidance tendencies, which only contributed to the long eight months of conflict. Fortunately, Victor took the initiative of meeting with his staff and a close circle of mature church leaders. His staff, particularly, helped him accept that as the pastoral leader, he did not have the luxury of fleeing from crises. To do so is to defect from his responsibilities as leader. Soon his staff and lay leaders became a source of support for him in the midst of the conflict, despite the fact that one staff member tended to side with the opposers due to personal relationships.

  6. Failing to hold people accountable. As a conflict-avoider one of Victor's most costly mistakes was in failing to hold people accountable for poor behavior and irresponsibility. He dreaded this as it meant direct confrontation, dealing with hurt feelings, and risking rejection. In times like this a little voice from his family of origin echoed the phrases, "Who do you think you are to judge me?" and "You can't tell me what to do." Victor had to admit to himself that his failure to hold people accountable during the tense time in the congregation contributed to the drawn out conflict. Had he acted sooner things would not have gone on so badly for so long. Admirably, Victor started with holding himself accountable to function as the leader and do what the church needs of its leader--despite his personal timidities and anxieties. Next, he approached a staff member who was acting inappropriately in the midst of the conflict. While it was an uncomfortable meeting, Victor was surprised at how the staff member was able to function better after the meeting.

  7. Accommodating to weakness. Victor's conflict-avoidance tendencies made it easy for him to fall into this leadership mistake. In the midst of the conflict Victor sought to placate the complainers, who were those in the congregation who had the least capacity for change, and little tolerance for challenge. He'd given in to the illusion that in order to move forward with the vision he had to make sure everyone was happy. Doing so, he found himself investing a lot of time and energy overfocusing on the most immature in the system, and, accommodating himself to their weaknesses. This was not only overwhelmingly tiring, but after eight months, there was no change in those who were the focus of his attention. Victor determined to focus on the strengths in the system, on those people who were willing to move ahead with the vision. He started spending more time with his staff and investing in the lay leaders in the system who, while less vocal, demonstrated a deeper commitment to the welfare of the church, as a whole, over personal interests. Although the vocal minority did not go away, Victor was able to realize more immediate and tangible progress when he invested his energies in the most motivated and less anxious.

In the midst of conflict and its stress, it is difficult to differentiate whether we are focusing on reactivity responses or on emotional process. Here's a chart contrasting the two:

I don't know how Victor will come out on the other side of the current conflict. It may be he will be forced to leave. Perhaps he will choose to leave. Or, if he perseveres, he and the congregation will arrive at a different place, a less anxious place, in their relationship as pastoral leader and church. Whatever the outcome, I suspect Victor's commitment to take responsibility for his own functioning and well being will yield growth.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

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