Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conflict is a Good Thing?

Conflict. Confrontation. Disagreement.

How to you respond to these words? Have you already hid behind the couch or are you standing on the chair ready to fight? I’m a recovering conflict-avoider, toting a bag of newfound courage over my shoulder.

Through time, thousands of mistakes, a few leadership classes, and several books I have learned that being a natural peacemaker isn’t always a healthy personality type. There are benefits to ignoring the elephant in the room (such as less arguing around the holidays), but I’ve learned that acknowledging differences and asserting myself is healthier in the long run.

Take a recent example. After my first 100 days on the job, the honeymoon is over. I’ve been at work long enough to learn that my peers aren’t without faults…and that I (long pause) am not perfect (audience gasps). I know, I know. My mother will probably disagree, but I do fall short of perfection (Thanks, Mom, for believing otherwise.). This past weekend it became obviously clear to me that my program goals, my methods to arrive there, and my competence to lead people are being questioned by a few people.

Whenever you are the new kid on the block you’re given instant respect in some ways and asked to prove yourself in other ways. I have also learned through various jobs that it takes time to create a new culture for your workplace. Despite knowing the inevitability of such hurdles, I never looked forward to the impending conflict.

Despite a meeting months ago, I realized I hadn’t communicated clearly enough. A group of people wanted to reach point “A” via point “B”. I wanted to get to point “A” through point “C”. An email interaction didn’t work (as it often doesn’t) so I arranged a meeting between the groups. I looked the group in the eyes (inhale, exhale), expressed my point (inhale, exhale), listened to my friends (nod, mmhmm), asked for clarification (yes, ok), pointed to the goal (breaaaathe), celebrated our shared excitement and convictions (exhale), and concluded with a new plan of action – getting to point “A” via point “D” (EXHALE). Nobody left in tears. Everyone affirmed each other’s value. And the next time I speak with my friends/colleagues I can look at them in the eyes and enjoy easy conversation (SLEEP!).

I had lost sleep over it, but don’t have to anymore. Having studied leadership and watched a few great leaders in action, I know that many more disagreements await me. As a seminary professor said, “If there isn’t disagreement/conflict, you’re probably doing something wrong.” So assuming I continue making baby steps in leadership and refuse to roll in a ball when conflict arises, I’ll be able to maintain some semblance of respect. Since the peacemaker inside me “just wants to be loved”, I have to work at the more important task of leading. My current favorite quote regarding leadership comes from ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd: “Tell the truth. You’d be surprised how much trouble it gets you in.” I hope to get in more “trouble”, but through respectful confrontation.

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