The Fire of Team Conflict

by Andrew Brown, LLP

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Antalya is a beautiful place. It can also be very hot and dry place—sometimes going months without rain. This makes the surrounding forests highly vulnerable to fire. Occasionally we’ll see an airplane or helicopter loaded with water on its way to extinguish a blaze. Fire is a pretty good analogy for conflict on a team. Fire is a natural and normal occurrence in the life of a forest, just as conflict is a normal part of team life. At lower levels of intensity, both can be very helpful as they clear out “debris” that would otherwise inhibit growth and productivity. At the same time, they both have the potential at higher levels of intensity to be very destructive. What makes the difference?

Experts have identified the following four factors that contribute to a high-intensity, destructive “wildfire”: weather, fuel, topography and moisture. These factors offer insight into why some team conflict gets so out of control.

Hot, dry, and windy weather conditions, like those common on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, increase the likelihood of a destructive fire. Similarly, teams that are operating in difficult, high-stress contexts are more vulnerable to harmful conflict. Most of us are well aware of the changes in our emotional state and decreased patience while experiencing heightened stress. It’s important to realize when we are engaged in conflict or assisting others, that both parties are likely operating at far less than “100%.” This is good reason to proceed with extra compassion and gentleness.

Another problem for forests is the accumulation of debris on the forest floor. A live tree is fairly resilient to fire at its base. But dead branches on the ground and on the tree’s trunk provide fire with a “ladder” to climb higher into its dense branches. Without a commitment to keeping short accounts, teams and individuals often find themselves surrounded by accumulating relational “debris.” Significant differences, disagreements, offenses and wounds that have not been adequately addressed provide ready fuel for the next conflict.

Topography is another factor in wildfires because fire spreads more rapidly up a steep incline. This is due in part to the behavior of wind and also to the impact of rising heat, which quickly preheats the unburnt fuel above it. The “topography” of teams (“level” equality vs. “steep” dominance) is significant as well. Teams that emphasize hierarchy or ascribe value based on gender, age, nationality or even time-served are primed for harmful conflict. Just as fire moves more rapidly up a steep hill, so does blame. And often judgment moves just as quickly in the opposite direction. Rather than emphasizing the differences between individuals on a team, we must strive to elevate the unifying things they have in common.

Finally, there is the importance of water. This seems fairly self-explanatory in regard to fire and actually, it should probably be equally as obvious when it comes to teams. The same things that enrich team members—that help them thrive and grow and serve productively—will also mitigate the risk posed by conflict. Individuals on a team have a variety of relational needs. They need to feel valued, cared for, and respected. They need encouragement and affirmation. In essence, team members need to have confidence that their needs and well-being are important to the significant others around them.

Unfortunately, it is this very confidence that is often shaken the most during conflict. This is because in a conflict, both parties are seeking to elevate their priority or position. Often, part of this effort includes trying to minimize the validity or importance of the opposing priority or position. When these efforts prove insufficient, the body takes the initiative to supply each person with the added power of intense emotion. In this state of heightened emotion, personal attacks are common and the wildfire of conflict is in full blaze. The result is that each party ends up looking across the table at an intensely emotional person who is dead-set on depreciating something of personal importance to him or her.

Even if these two parties find their way through the conflict via acquiescence or compromise, the damage to trust often remains. It gets added to the “pile” of other experiences in which an individual has perceived that when it really matters, “This person can’t be trusted to adequately value me or my needs.”

As we work to help couples or teams resolve conflict, there is a crucial shift that needs to take place. It is for each party to begin communicating the value of the other—and by extension, the value of that person’s needs and priorities. With help and support, people are often able to do this turning the conflict into an opportunity to affirm the relationship and learn more about what really matters to the other person. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. When they don’t perceive value from the opposing party,  they have little reason to restore trust, and people part ways.

What if it were possible to be more proactive in strengthening this trust before conflict happened? What if we could develop well-worn paths of communicating value for those around us and their priorities—even when they didn’t align well with our own? It is, in fact, possible. But it is not easy. Because building relationships like this requires a concept that remains fairly obscure to many of us—humility.

While writing his epistle that addressed interpersonal conflict, James bookends the often referenced passage, “What causes fights and quarrels among you…” with calls to humility. A person of true wisdom, he writes, will be characterized by humility, purity, gentleness, sincerity, a willingness to yield to others, and a love of peace. Humility is the heartfelt understanding that under God, you and I are both important and our needs are of equal significance. When this posture consistently guides our relationships, we develop deep trust and the habit of communicating value to others. Only then can we fully benefit from the cleansing power of conflict.