Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Car Radios and Conflict

Culture Conflict -- one of the things that get my motor going. Groups of people work most effectively when unified. This is true of corporations, volunteer groups, churches, and any other “organization” I could list.

During the early church explosion in the book of Acts, the believers are described as being “in one accord” (Acts 2:1). Pastors will joke and clarify that the passage means that the believers were unified in spirit and purpose, not that they were all crammed into a single Honda Accord. However, the analogy of a group of people in a car is a good one when talking about organizational goals and effectiveness.

In addition to people, the basic components of a good road trip are: a working vehicle (structure), gas (propellant), a destination (goal), a map (plan), and a radio (culture). The vehicle should be large enough to fit all the passengers going on the trip. It also be functional and should work well enough to make it successfully to the destination. In the same way, organizational structure needs to be able to support the number of people and their needs. It should also be functional and “strong” enough to support an organization as it produces its outcomes—whether those outcomes are products or services. The gas propelling an organization forward is the motivation of its people. “Leaders get the best from others not by building fires under people but by building the fire within them.” What makes people want to participate? It is an understanding of “why” their part is important and “how” what they do makes a difference both in their organization and in their community. It also does no good to have a working car and a full tank of gas if there is no destination to go to. Similarly, organizations are useless without a goal and a plan (map) to get there. With a map, it is possible to detect if the car is headed in the right direction and whether or not the group is “making good time.”

But what makes road trips fun (and interesting) is the radio. What kind of music to the passengers prefer? Do they channel surf? Do they play a CD? Which one? Do they listen to music or to an audio book? Are they more likely to tune into a rock station or into National Public Radio? No two people are the same. They come from different backgrounds. They have different life experiences. They have wildly diverse personalities. They also come from completely different cultures. Nothing brings out the different “cultures” in the car better than the radio. And even if every other component of a road trip is in perfect harmony and working order, a fight over the radio (a culture clash) can change everything. It can affect morale and motivation. Passengers may want to bail on the trip and go back home. A fight can cause the navigator to miss a turn and in turn cause the car to be off course. In the same way, a culture clash can cause unnecessary organizational tension and cause things to go off course.

In the book of Acts, road trips took the form of missionary journeys. For a long time, Paul traveled with Barnabas and Mark (Acts 12:24). For some reason Mark did not travel with the other two on the missionary trip to Pamphylia. When they asked him to rejoin their traveling team, scripture states, “There occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another, and Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39). All the men shared a passion for the gospel—they had the same goals and the same vision. There was no radio to fight over, but there was some personality or style conflict that caused the ancient “road trippers” to part ways.

The problem does not lie in one particular culture being better or worse than the other. Rather, the problem lies in a lack of proper perspective and compromise. Good leadership is not about getting one’s own way; it is about helping one’s team to make a shared vision into reality. Organizations do not exist for people to have their own way. They exist to make a product or to provide a service in the best way possible.

Greatest Strength in Compromise

When two points of view differ, the one with more authority or power usually gets its way. Therefore, members of this culture have fulfilled expectations. And it follows that with every situation/decision that favors one way of thinking, members of another “culture” have unfulfilled expectations. These unfulfilled expectations lead to dissatisfaction, decreased participation and ultimately departure from the organization altogether.

As with any clash, the best solution is compromise. For example, the church is an institution that experiences a clash of cultures, the most obvious of which is a clash between older “traditional” style worshippers and younger “contemporary” worshippers. Both believe that their way is the best way, and very seldom is either side open to debate on the subject. The church’s solution to this clash is to separate the two groups and allow them to have separate worship services. However, this is not really a solution, it just places distance on the conflict. The best way to solve the clash is for both sides to become a little less self-focused and find ways to compromise. In the case of the church, each culture needs to remember that the goal of the church is to be culturally relevant. Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (I Cor 9:22). When members of each culture focus on the goal of the institution as whole—reaching unbelievers—instead of their goals as individual cultures—having church “my way”—the whole institution becomes more effective.

Wrapping up

Coming back to the analogy of the road trip, it is possible to find peace in the car even after a fight over the radio. Everyone can agree to have a turn controlling the radio. And if there is a common crisis (e.g. bad traffic, extreme weather), the entire group can agree to put aside individual preferences and listen to a local news station. From the earlier scripture example, Mark and Paul reconciled and forgave each other after their disagreement (Col 4:10). While scripture does not mention them traveling together again, Mark is referred to with fondness several times in Paul’s letters. This same Paul admonished the church to “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace…speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Eph 4:3, 15-16). Each organizational member—regardless of their cultural background—has something to contribute to the organization as a whole.

At the end of the day, leaders must help their organizations to win (to be effective). Effective leadership is the product of good relationships, and so is an effective organization. If each member of the organization can be a little more selfless and focus on creating the best products and services possible rather than always doing things their own way, the quality of relationships and overall effectiveness of the organization will be improved. The sky is the limit.

Bottom line: If listening to a different radio station for a few minutes would restore the adventurous atmosphere of a road trip, who would refuse?

“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3).


  1. Well put Regina! I'm glad I mentioned my little issue to you the other day. You expressed it up way more eloquently that I ever could have.