Embracing Conflict and Practicing Respect: A New Choreography

April 1, 2004
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By Shifra Bronznick

IMAGINE AN EMPTY STAGE. The space has been cleared of all scenery and props, costumes and scripts. The curtains have been parted, the space is well-lit. Picture this stage as an invitation to volunteers and professionals to design a new choreography of our partnership. What will it take to create this new composition, to understand and reconfigure the powerful, artificial, loving, enmeshed, awkward, and inspiring relationship between professional and volunteer leaders?

To revise our partnership would require a certain degree of improvisation and a willingness to set aside, at least temporarily, our operating assumptions and organizational charts. Envisioning the future of our organizations should be at the crux of the collaboration between volunteers and professionals. But to map out a compelling and viable vision, we need to exercise a new form of joint leadership.

The test of groundbreaking leadership, according to influential thinkers in the field, is the capacity to orchestrate conflict. In his landmark book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discovers that the first attribute of a great company is a leader who assembles the right team and aligns them with the right task, directs the team to confront the “brutal realities” of the environment, and cultivates controversy within, letting the team debate constructively until the best ideas emerge. Through this process, the team collaboratively identifies what the company will be best at that intersects with passion and financial viability.

In our community, we often find ourselves — volunteers and professionals — in situations that are exactly the reverse of the good-to-great company. We practice teamwork inconsistently, we avoid controversy, and we allow our internal political conflicts to seethe below the surface. Above ground, we indulge in unkind personal interactions or revert to manicured public conversation.

In the new choreography, volunteers and professionals would approach each other with kindness and respect. However, we would permit our conversations around ideas and goals to include genuine controversy without reprisals for unpopular views. We would cease our pandering and manipulation and encourage authentic debate about the issues that ignite our passions.

We would strive to understand each other’s motivation. We would clarify our expectations of each other, and we would agree on the ways in which we could hold each other accountable. We would give feedback with respect and delicacy, commenting straightforwardly but thoughtfully about what is going well and what can be improved.

In the new choreography, we would be exquisitely mindful of the differences between us. For example, we might acknowledge, where appropriate, our social inequities and the resulting tensions that may emerge between our volunteer leaders, who are usually wealthy, and our professionals who often struggle mightily to manage the high cost of Jewish living.

We would address tensions along the “learning curve” as a team; for example, our volunteers sometime feel that their leadership capacity is thwarted by their limited mastery of the issues while our professionals, besieged by competing demands, may feel that the volunteer leader is yet another task to be managed, rather than a legitimate working partner.

The customary tensions of organizational life are often intensified and skewed in the context of the relationship between professionals and volunteers. Everyone is sensitive when it comes to receiving criticism, no matter how constructive, and we all bristle at careless, hurtful remarks. Paradoxically, despite the frequency of abrasive interpersonal exchanges, ultimately our organizational culture insists on making everyone “look good.” We need, instead, to create a climate where people are allowed to fail, to make mistakes in the pursuit of experimentation, innovation, and challenge.

A new choreography would require each of us to practice leadership in our respective arenas while respecting the subtleties of our complex relationship. As professionals, we might begin to select our volunteer partners with greater discernment. As volunteer leaders, we would focus on the communal activities that make the best use of our time and talents. By practicing respect and encouraging controversy, we can leverage the leadership potential of the volunteer and professional partnership and set the stage for a powerful communal conversation that can transform the Jewish world.

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Shifra Bronznick is a consultant specializing in creating change initiatives for nonprofit organizations.

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