When a volatile, outspoken relief pitcher calls out a hyper-competitive MVP candidate for not playing hard enough at the end of a disappointing season, bad things happen. In this case, a dugout brawl. On Sunday, Jonathan Papelbon and his Washington Nationals teammate Bryce Harper fought after Papelbon accused Harper, a notoriously aggressive player, of not running out a pop fly. The Nationals’ closer is known to be abrasive, and Harper, arguably the best player in the National League this year, plays his heart out every day. The confrontation was the 212th degree for a team that was favored to win its division but will instead miss the postseason.
Is it bad when teammates fight? Bad for morale, for competitive edge, for performance? Or is it a sign of the drive to be great? Some coaches love it, especially in football. It shows aggression and a will to win. Others hate it because it indicates a lack of discipline and emotional fortitude. Who’s right? Are fights always bad between teammates?
Set aside the physical nature of the conflict, since fighting among adults in most circumstances and arenas of life is frowned upon. It’s usually the response of children who can’t control their emotions or those in the midst of intense physical competition. The rest of us are expected to have the maturity to handle conflict differently, but conflict on a team (think work or ministry) is inevitable—and not all of it is bad.
Most often conflict is emotional and verbal—or non-verbal if you dig the passive-aggressive approach. It might be the overflow of bitterness and anger.
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Healthy conflict stems from the natural tension of working with people different than yourself who take different approaches to the same problem. Your team can’t figure out a sticky problem. You are on a tight deadline with high stakes.
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Conflict is where hard problems are solved and deep emotions are worked through. It is the difficult work of aligning, climbing, and overcoming. But it’s only good when both combatants are aiming at the same objective rather than aiming at each other, when they are fighting for resolution rather than to inflict pain.
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