Conflict in Work Groups

Imagine you are a new member of a worship committee at your church or temple, and your current task is to plan an upcoming holiday. You know the task involves choosing readings, music, whether to have the children’s choir sing or the religious education students do a play, among other things.

When working groups like a worship committee form, thoughts about the task or what the group is supposed to accomplish are clearly on everyone’s mind. But what else is going on? In addition to the explicit task, there are all of the non-task thoughts. These are all of the concerns that we don’t necessarily talk about, but that run through our minds when we work in groups. Common thoughts include:

  • Who will I be in this group?
  • How involved will I be in this group?
  • Will I be able to remain myself in this group?
  • Who will be accepted in this group?

 Many of us may think that we are the only ones who wonder about our identity in a group. Truth is, almost everyone has the same concerns and those concerns influence our behavior more than we might think. Understanding this and what those concerns are helps us reflect on our behavior in groups, respond to conflict, and communicate more effectively.

A few months ago, Reverend John Gibb Millspaugh reached out to Eben Weitzman, asking that TMG put together a workshop for leaders of area Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) congregations. As a specialist in Adaptive Leadership, and the Director of Congregational Development for most of Massachusetts and Connecticut, Reverend Millspaugh had given a lot of thought to the issue of conflict in organizations generally, and more particularly to some of the challenges common in religious organizations. He initially framed what he was looking for as follows: “Conflict is part of our religious heritage, a normal part of our democratic governance and our collaborative faith. Done well, conflict can lead to progress — yet done poorly, conflict damages people, relationships and the potential of our religious movement.”

Taking that as our starting point, we developed a half-day workshop drawing heavily on our knowledge and experience working with organizational issues of many kinds. Religious congregations provide some of the greatest challenges — and lots of rewards — when it comes to working in groups. They are highly mission-driven, run largely by volunteers, and there is a theme of a “higher purpose” in everything they do. Our particular focus had to do with our understanding that although non-task concerns influence behavior, they rarely surface directly during the normal course of a meeting.

One method of unearthing these dynamics for learning purposes is called a T-group, developed by Kurt Lewin who is a founder of modern social psychology. In a T-group, participants sit in groups of 8-15 with a self- focusing agenda, one that asks the group to study what’s going on in the group, at the moment. There is no other outside task to be done, no other project to be completed, no other distraction from talking about those “common thoughts” above that are usually considered “off task.” It’s a bit uncomfortable at first and sometimes conversation is slow to start. But once it gets going, the participants have an opportunity to learn experientially about small group dynamics, conflict and themselves and to reflect under the guidance of the facilitators. Eben has used this approach as the basis for “Conflict in Work Groups.” a semester-long class he has taught at the Graduate Programs in Dispute Resolution at UMass Boston for many years.

So Eben and I adapted this approach to work in a half-day format focused on life in religious communities and combined it with some skills training on handling conflict constructively. We delivered this workshop to 79 leaders in the Clara Barton and Mass Bay Unitarian Universalist Congregations. By spending time explicitly experiencing and reflecting on the non- task dynamics in a group, participants gained insight into challenges such as working with volunteers, how to listen when it’s hard to hear what the other person is saying, how to support volunteers who put the mission before their own well-being, and how to constructively work in a political environment when everyone thinks religious principles are on their side. We all learned a great deal from each other.