With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: How much do you think “personality” plays into conflicts between people?
Here is why I ask. We are having a very serious tiff in our congregation that involves [two] … members of our staff. They simply are not getting along.
I am just a member, not an elected leader. I ask an elected leader, and he says it is a “personality conflict” and rolls his eyes. I think this is some kind of code for not liking each other or at least not working together. And the leaders — this leader anyway, who is pretty high up — seem to have no idea what to do.
Here is what bothers me. If we just leave it like he says it is, a “personality conflict,” and we do nothing about it, then this tense feeling in the congregation will continue and they will continue not to get along. We all feel it and it makes being around them tense. I guess we can’t do anything about this.
If it is “personality,” people don’t change that, do they? We just grin and bear it? That doesn’t seem right.
What do you think about this kind of a “personality conflict”? Is the only way to fix this for one of the parties to move away?
A: What are you prepared to do?
You have noticed and felt the tension between these staff members. Are you of a mind or heart to speak with them about this? Although you may not be an elected congregational leader, as you say, I think you still need to be a leader in this matter.
If the tension is so palpable, it is likely experienced by many.
As your Þrst step, I suggest that you go back to the congregational leader and communicate your concern. Encourage him to get with other leaders to engage the conßict directly with the staff members. If they have a plan, that’s good. Encourage them to follow that plan. And if they don’t have a plan, encourage them to develop one. But there is a next step for you.
Step two: Ask to speak privately to both staff members together. If the conflict is noticeable but no one is dealing directly with it, someone needs to deal with it. I hope that under those conditions, it will be you. Surround yourself in prayer. If helpful, take a colleague with you who also senses this. Keep your conversation focused on “I” statements, such as, “I feel a lot of tension between the two of you. It saddens me when I sense this.” There may be some resistance to acknowledging this, of course. Even so, hold your ground. But you are only in a position to point out what you experience, not to force something if your staff members will not let it fit.
Sometimes when people are locked in conflict, a way to describe it in kind of a shorthand way is “personality conflict,” as you say. But I think what this seems to mean most of the time is that one person has characteristics and behaviors that are irritating and off-putting to another person, and vice versa. I have experienced this, and I bet you have too.
Being open to feedback is crucial when working at this. It is especially difficult if the characteristics and behaviors that are stimulating at least one side of the conflict are part of what any of us believe is just who we are. In order to grow, your staff members will need to be open to feedback about themselves, as difficult as this may be.
Often, this requires a safe space, a place where discussion and feedback can take place mutually. A helpful direction for the staff members would be to use the services of a consultant, coach, or counselor. Going this way, the staff members together would select a counselor — for instance, who sits with them together to discuss what is happening between them. It is important to have both staff members together at the same time, rather than one staff member going into counseling to talk about the relationship.
If the staff relationship is among peers, such counseling is likely covered by the Employee Assistance Program of the Concordia Health Plan, provided that both are willing to call a counselor.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at hartungb@ csl.edu.
Posted April 5, 2011