Local Commentary

The Little City Weed

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Productive conflict over ideology is an essential attribute of a healthy community. Disagreement which is personality-focused and mean spirited destroys a community by eroding trust. One of the functions of high performing community leaders is to actively encourage productive conflict and to manage destructive conflict by creating opportunities for members of the community to trust one another.

 

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Productive conflict over ideology is an essential attribute of a healthy community. Disagreement which is personality-focused and mean spirited destroys a community by eroding trust. One of the functions of high performing community leaders is to actively encourage productive conflict and to manage destructive conflict by creating opportunities for members of the community to trust one another.

The notion conflict can be productive and even essential to the health of a community is not universally appreciated. Many people disagree with the notion any type of conflict is good, or they agree with the sentiment without really understanding why conflict in community is desirable.

Groups which discourage conflict, either out of fear of harming someone or because it seems distasteful, tend to avoid dealing with important issues. The practices of the group become staid and the ability to cope with change and the questioning of the status quos quickly atrophies. Conflict becomes deeply buried and manifests itself in dysfunction. In communities which eschew conflict, people with legitimate concerns and ideas feel unheard and shutdown. The community becomes, in a word, unhealthy.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, discusses some of the core concepts of conflict, leadership, and dysfunction in group dynamics.

The best community leaders, then, will facilitate conflict. They will even go so far as to create healthy conflict when no conflict seems to exist.

The debate, as an example, over whether or not to move local elections to November or May is a healthy conflict in the community. It is a clear ideological difference on public policy – on voter participation, on process, and on fiscal policy. The voices which criticize the issue because it is a “waste of time” really argue for continuing a dysfunction in the community because of the fear of any type of conflict associated with the ideological discussion.

In the same example, one can see where the conflict jumps the shark and becomes destructive. When the debate veers from the productive conflict associated with the idea of changing or not changing the election date (low turnout elections are not desirable and discriminate against protected voter populations or low turnout elections allow people to focus on local issues), to stifling conflict (artificially limiting public debate), or engaging in personality-focused attacks (the decision makers did not follow process or had some personal ulterior motive), then the conflict becomes destructive.

You can see the pattern in recent conflicts in our community over mixed use development, affordable housing, school budget policy, substandard lot zoning issues, to name a few. Watch healthy debate over legitimate ideological differences devolve into a community destroying conflict which denudes discussion and focuses on local personalities.

Falls Church is learning to cope with conflict. Thanks in part to the burgeoning online community. The next step is to distinguish between productive and destruction conflict, and to hold leaders accountable for fostering good conflict and requiring community leaders to refrain from the destructive behaviors of gagging healthy conflict and then modeling the most destructive forms of personality-focused conflict.

 


Michael Gardner is a quixotic citizen and founder of the Blueweeds community blog.