There is a difference between healthy tension and unhealthy conflict. Wise leaders attempt to foster healthy tension where team members who love and trust one another sharpen each other and where ideas get matured and developed through robust discussion. Just as tension in exercise makes a body stronger, healthy tension can make a team stronger.
Unhealthy conflict is very different. Unhealthy conflict spoils the unity and morale of the team. Unhealthy conflict distracts from the mission. Unhealthy conflict, if it is allowed to fester and grow, becomes more and more divisive and more and more harmful.
Here are four questions to help leaders recognize the difference between healthy tension and unhealthy conflict.
1. Is there team development or team deterioration?
When there is healthy tension, the team genuinely cares for one another and enjoys being together. There is a sacred vulnerability because they know they are valued. When there is unhealthy conflict, the team dreads meetings and times together collectively. Fear and constant attempts to validate contributions dominate the meetings. The team seems to get less and less healthy the more it is together.
2. Are people being helped or harmed?
When there is trust, people are developed through feedback. When there is mutual respect and care for one another, people relish tension because they know it makes them better. They know the intent is not embarrassment, showmanship, or backstabbing. When there is unhealthy conflict, people are harmed. They lose confidence, passion, and their development is stifled because they become overly guarded to feedback.
3. Is the mission advanced or stifled?
When there is healthy tension, people who trust one another sharpen one another for the mission to be better advanced. When there is unhealthy conflict, the mission is stifled because instead of being focused on the mission, people are overly focused on conflict resolution. Instead of trusting each other and moving in the same direction, unhealthy conflict breeds mistrust and mission dilution as people move in a plethora of directions.
4. Are the right people leaving?
People are going to leave. They will leave churches, ministries, teams, and organizations. A good portion of the leaving can be chalked up to changes in life stage, new opportunities, or shifting passions. But some departures are related to conflict and tension. When there is healthy tension, the culture is getting stronger, and the people leaving are the people who should be leaving—the people whose values do not match the values of the culture. When there is unhealthy conflict, the people leaders don’t want to lose are the ones leaving.
Leaders must recognize the difference between healthy tension and unhealthy conflict. The former is a great tool; the latter a great threat.