Disharmony in Lodge; it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

“Harmony,” a word which outside of its musical context means “in agreement, or concord.” Masonically, we frequently speak of harmony. The word is present in our degrees, used when opening and closing our business meetings, and considered the strength and support of our fraternity. We pledge the concept of Masonic harmony in all of our doings within, and hopefully without the lodge. This concept is so overarching that it pervades many of the operational aspects of our lodges including planning, voting, and organizing. It is emphasized so much so that it can govern our actions and our spoken opinions. With such an apparent correlation that harmony is equal to the concept of who can best work together and best agree, why is conflict and tension so prevalent in our organization?

We all experience conflict every day. In some ways, life is a constant state of conflict that we attempt to resolve, and bring order to; moment to moment, year to year. If you have been a Mason for any significant amount of time, it is likely that you have been party to or witness to conflict within the walls of your own Lodge. Indeed, to some it might even seem that there is constant conflict in Lodge as members propose ideas, disagree on dues, or argue over what we should be eating for dinner.

A Masonic lodge is many things, a group of brethren, a building, a business, a temple, or a non profit organization. For the moment, let us view the lodge through the lens of a non profit business organization.

Avoiding conflict seems natural, and when conflict does occur in a group workplace, conflict resolution is often ushered in as swiftly as possible to quiet the perceived disruption. While at times this can lead to a beneficial outcome, or at least on the surface, a peaceful outcome; it can also lead to more disharmony than the actual conflict itself. Meaningful workplace conflict is a cornerstone of many healthy, successful organizations. Conflict is necessary for effective problem solving, and for effective interpersonal relationships.

Appropriately managed conflict in a communal workplace can lead to a place where people feel free to disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, often resulting in a more thorough study of courses of action and concepts. According to Peter Block, business author and speaker: 

If you are unwilling to participate in organizational politics or conflict, you will never accomplish things that are important to you at work.
— Peter Block

Clarity can be a positive outcome of managed conflict. Disagreements and contention build in the darkness of ambiguity. When team members stay silent in hopes of reducing conflict, contention and resentment often builds. This concept is important for upper management as well. When team leaders gate information or difficult decisions to try and avoid conflict, team members can quickly come to supposisitions with regards to the intent or goals of upper management. This ambiguity leads to deepening resentment within the group. Where effective leaders excel, is by managing conversations through steering debate towards resolving ambiguity and bringing about clarity.

Another lens to view a Masonic lodge is as a school. It is a school for all manner of good men to improve themselves, and experience things they may not experience elsewhere in their lives. Apart and aside from the education in morality and mortality, a Mason is exposed to public speaking, event planning, financial management, organization, and group leadership. Our membership being as diverse as it is, nearly guarantees a mixed level of experience and proficiency in each of these skill sets.

Conflict is inevitable in this construct, but perhaps the brilliant architects of our craft engineered our traditions in such a way as to both introduce meaningful conflict, while also giving us the tools to resolve it in a way that pushes our organization further. Conflict, or disagreement is not necessarily the same thing as contention. Conflict can promote mutual understanding of different values and aspirations. It can promote social change and progress in the culture of an organization. The process of resolution of conflict is in and of itself a mechanic for growth of each person involved, provided the conflict is managed correctly towards clarity and ultimately resolution.

Perhaps the phrase best work and best agree might not mean “you should always agree with your brothers,” it may allude to the idea that the process of coming to an agreement is the actual work, and that as masons, we need not avoid conflict per se, but that we should use our tools to come to a harmonious conclusion or resolution of the conflict at hand.

Consider as well the use of the phrase “contention, or rather emulation.” Why do we suggest that emulation of working together can take the place of contention, or that there is even a “noble” idea of contention that is in contrast to the common definition. Emulation can be defined as “an effort to match or surpass a person or achievement.” This phrasing suggests that we can in fact have productive conflict in lodge, that contention can be noble when the conflict is resolved by doing our best to emulate, match or surpass a goal or potential achievement. Taken in this manner, is expressly how we can work well together, despite being free to have varying points of view.

Whether we manage conflict in lodge effectively or not, everyone comes out of the other side of a disagreement stronger than before, more so if the tools at our disposal as Masons are used effectively. Even if conflict leads to the proverbial destruction of the temple, another will be rebuilt stronger than ever.

It seems that dissent, rather than conflict is the problem that needs to be addressed in our organization. There is a stark difference between dissent and disagreement. To quote Daniel Boorstin;

Disagreement produces debate, but dissent produces dissension. People who disagree have an argument, but people who dissent have a quarrel. A free society thrives on disagreement but is killed by dissension. Disagreement is the lifeblood of democracy; dissension is its cancer. … Disagreers seek solutions to common problems; dissenters seek power for themselves.
— Daniel Boorstin

Perhaps we should further embrace productive disagreement in our lodges and make use of the gavel to chip off the rough edges of a proposed idea, while still embracing the harmonic bond that can be fostered with the trowel. A Masonic Lodge is an incredibly unique incubator that often creates a decades old and ever changing experiment. One that forces men to come together and unite in a common goal. The complexities of this experiment lead its members over a rough and rugged road beset with many problems to solve, both internal and external. The rules of this experimental system are not accidental, including the furnace of conflict that it can create. When focused, this furnace can indeed calcify dissent and create the purity that is Masonic harmony and brotherly love.