When trouble arises, it's natural to wonder whether certain employees are prone to conflict. After all, some people just seem to be more combative by nature. However, the reality is that all human beings engage in conflict; we just do it in different ways. A better question may be, "How is each employee prone to handle conflict?"
According to the conflict mode model developed by Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann (the basis for the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI), people approach conflict through one of five modes, each of which represents different degrees of assertiveness and cooperativeness:
* competing: assertive and uncooperative
* collaborating: assertive and cooperative
* compromising: straddles the line between assertiveness and cooperativeness
* accommodating: unassertive and cooperative
* avoiding: unassertive and uncooperative.
Nearly every form of human conflict can be understood through one of these modes, each of which has its benefits and challenges. While the competing mode is most visible, conflicts are constantly brewing around us, often in less obvious ways, through the other four modes.
Unless everyone you work with thinks in lock-step--and human beings rarely do--chances are there is some form of conflict taking place in your organization right now. If, for example, one or more parties is operating in avoiding or accommodating mode, a conflict may not even be apparent. Yet, in the long term, it may be more destructive than one that's out in the open because it is less likely to be addressed. So for companies, the route to conflict resolution is less about identifying the "troublemakers" than it is about discovering how team members individually approach conflict.
Qualifying what we intuitively observe about conflict
We all observe these modes in action in our everyday lives. Some people come across as crushingly aggressive, some as pushovers, and others as disinterested and disengaged in how they handle conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann model provides a way to categorize and qualify this common experience.
Within a given environment, such as the workplace, each of us tends to gravitate toward one or two modes of conflict handling. Each person develops her preferred or default conflict style based on culture, family, organizations we belong to, and our own aptitudes, skills, and comfort zones.
Although our preferred style may serve us well in some situations, to be truly effective as human beings we need to learn how to operate in multiple modes. Anyone can develop skills in all these dimensions after they understand the purpose of each mode, and recognize that it's OK to use the mode in that particular situation.
In helping people understand how they tend to handle conflict and open their minds to the wider range of options available, it is helpful to begin by discussing the roots of how we develop our preferred conflict management style. Culture and family, for example, play a substantial role. Think about how, as a child growing up, you were allowed to handle conflict with siblings, parents, and peers. Were you respected when you stood up for yourself or was this discouraged? All these experiences shape our perspectives regarding what is acceptable and what isn't.
Sondra Vansant, author of Wired for Conflict, asserts that our innate personality preferences also play a role in how we manage conflict. For example, if you tend to make decisions based on how you think they'll affect people ("feeling" as identified by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument), you may be more prone to handling conflict by accommodating. Alternately, if you tend to make decisions based on facts and logic ("thinking" as identified by the MBTI instrument), you are more likely to choose competing to address conflict.
Furthermore, personality type influences what motivates us to operate in a certain mode. If your decisions are largely values-based, as is often the case with intuitive, feeling types, you may become quite assertive if you feel those values are challenged. For example, if someone with a core value of standing up for others perceives a colleague is being treated unfairly, he may address the conflict in a passionately competitive manner--even if he is typically more cooperative and unassertive in his dealings.
Mix up the styles
All modes have positive aspects, but the challenge is being able to use that style only when it's appropriate, and not overusing any single style. For example, while a team with members mostly operating in avoiding mode may yield a more immediately placid work setting, this ongoing behavior can lead to decisions not being made, which in turn may lead to work not being done (or the wrong work being done).
All of this may ultimately have a tremendously negative impact on the environment and organization, albeit in a more subtle way than you might experience with assertive conflict modes.
On the other hand, if a team functions too much in competing mode, chances are its members aren't listening to one another, and consequently not imparting and receiving accurate information. This can lead to gridlock and a host of interpersonal "fires" that you must then address.
If a leader operates only in competing mode, she is likely surrounded by people who acquiesce to her demands, not because they really agree but because they feel forced into accommodating mode. In the Star Wars films, Darth Vader has a tendency to kill any member of his organization who disagrees with him. This fantastical example is of course extreme, but we all have observed situations where subordinates agree with their leader in public, and then privately discuss how foolish they really think the decision is--they're afraid of repercussions if they speak up.
This ultra-assertive, uncooperative conflict management style doesn't lead to a tightly run ship, but rather to an organization running blindly. No one tells the leader anything other than what she wants to hear, making it practically impossible to make sound decisions based on accurate information.
In today's business world, collaboration has become the queen bee of buzzwords. However, when it comes to conflict management, it's a mistake to assume that collaboration, or compromise, for that matter, are always preferable. After all, everyone on the team is not always equally right, and a solution that is arrived at by two parties meeting each other halfway is not always the best.
If someone on your team feels passionately about a particular issue, and has put a tremendous amount of effort into understanding it and developing an answer, it might be a mistake to encourage that individual to always concede a portion of his vision simply to appease another team member. This may be particularly true if it is apparent that the dissenting team member is not as informed or invested, or if you think that he is operating in competing mode out of habit.
Expanding your team's conflict management pallet
The key to a successfully functioning organization is to train your team members to be conscious of their own preferred conflict handling styles, and be aware that they can and should learn to operate in all five modes, and pick the mode that's right for the situation.
Avoiding. Use this mode when you decide that the conflict has no value, and that you're better off saving your time and energy for other matters. Additionally, this can be a good temporary solution if you need more time to gather facts, refocus, take a break, or simply change the setting of the conflict. However, be sure not to avoid people in your attempt to avoid conflict--don't be evasive.
Collaborating. When you believe the conflict is worth investing the time and energy to more deeply explore the issue, this may be the best path. Collaborate effectively by picturing the other's concerns, clarifying and sharing your own underlying concern, and helping the other parties clarify their concerns as well. Avoid assigning blame or using "I" language, and try to use the word and rather than but.
Accommodating. This may be the best course of action when you place more value on satisfying another's concerns than your own (you'd rather build goodwill than risk the relationship), and when you believe you are yielding to a better position, or recognize that you simply can't win
Be careful not to fall into a pattern of appeasement, or accept abuse. Be sure to concede gracefully and use active listening.
Compromising. This mode is optimal when you feel that the point of conflict is worth only a modest strain on the relationship; you're willing to have some of your needs satisfied, but don't feel the need to get everything you want out of it.
Compromise effectively by suggesting concessions without looking weak, and ensuring that your concessions are reciprocated. Also, insist on a criterion of fairness up front.
Competing. This may be the way to go when you believe that your concerns trump the other's concerns, and it is worth more sizable risk in terms of the resistance you'll encounter and the damage to your relationship.
Be effective by explaining your motives, being respectful and listening, and sticking to the specific issue, as well as avoiding making threats. Finally, remember to be supportive of others as they seek to carry out your position.
The beauty of the process is that the more we know about these five conflict modes, the more readily we recognize them when we see them in action--both in ourselves, and in others. I'll never forget the moment these principles were solidified for me, during a meeting in which one person was dictating what needed to be done, and another was saying "sure"--a classic competing/accommodating interaction.
After you become aware, you'll start to see the modes playing out everywhere, and you'll be empowered to practice identifying the optimum style for a given conflict and operating in it--and to help your team start to do the same.
Pamela Valencia is an organizational development consultant for CPP the publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument, and works with Fortune 500 companies on various training programs; firstname.lastname@example.org.