One of the things I’ve noticed about the organizations I’ve served in more than 20 years in business, is that the organization’s “conflict culture” is almost always a direct reflection of the dominant conflict style of the organization’s leader. If the conflict style is weak or negative, it becomes a cancer in the organization, destroying effective communication, damaging working relationships, and making customer service a back-burner concern.
According to a study commissioned by CPP Inc. — publishers of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument — U.S. employees spend 2.1 hours per week involved with conflict, which amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on an average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days.
The study also found that 70% of people surveyed believe managing conflict is a critically important leadership skill.
Every employee in an organization, but especially leaders, needs to know his or her dominant communication style- its strengths and weaknesses, situations where it will serve them well or hinder them, and how to develop skills in alternative conflict styles. Being able to choose the right approach to match a situation will greatly enhance your success in navigating any conflict situation you find yourself in.
In 1974, Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann introduced their Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument which identifies five primary approaches or styles of conflict people use.
Competitive: People whose dominant style is competitive, tend to be aggressive and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power that they gain from their job title, expertise, or their ability to dominate or persuade others conversationally. This style can be appropriate in an emergency situation that requires fast decision making, when defending yourself or your organization against an unfair attack or unfair treatment, or when alternatives have been exhausted and an unpopular decision must be enacted. However, it can leave people feeling intimidated, weak, and resentful.
Collaborative: Collaborative people look out for themselves and their interests, but also concern themselves with the interests and needs of others. They’re usually highly assertive, but they use that assertion in a cooperative fashion. They’re good listeners and empathetic. This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too important for a simple compromise. However, collaborating is often time consuming and requires cooperation of all parties, which isn’t always easy to come by.
Compromising: People who lean toward compromise are looking for a quick and easy solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something to achieve this quick resolution. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of giving something up, when the issue at hand isn’t highly important, and when parties are at a standstill and the issue is time sensitive. However, when compromise is the primary resolution tool in an organization, it can create a “half satisfied” team because nobody ever really gets to experience a “win.”
Accommodating: This is the style of the “martyr” who consistently meets the needs of others at the expense of his or her own needs. People who accommodate believe it’s best to give in to keep the peace and will do so at the hint of conflict- often prematurely. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to have someone “owe you.” However, people often don’t “pay up,” and overall this approach is not only unlikely to give the best outcomes, but leaves the accommodator unsatisfied and with a lot of “what ifs.”
Avoiding: Avoiders seek to delay or hide from conflict completely. This style is typified by delegating difficult or controversial decisions, putting off difficult conversations in the hope the issue or person will go away, and being overly concerned about other peoples’ feelings. It can be appropriate when the issue isn’t that important or the relationship with the other party is more important than the issue at hand. However, in many situations this is a weak and ineffective approach to take.
As you can see, there are pros and cons of each style. If they didn’t serve any purpose, no one would use them. However, to effectively manage conflict, you have to know which style to use when, AND how to engage in that style, even if it isn’t your primary or desired approach.
Were you able to identify your conflict style from the descriptions above? Or, like many people, do you find that your approach to conflict fit more than one style?