Five Techniques to Help You Manage Conflict in the Workplace

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Many managers head in the opposite direction when they encounter conflict in the workplace. That's a mistake, as there are both healthy and unhealthy forms of conflict and both merit your attention. 

Healthy conflict focuses on tasks or work-related activities and can be leveraged and facilitated for gain. Unhealthy conflict--the type that gets personal, must be extinguished immediately or it jeopardizes adversely impacting the work environment.

 

Understanding the Five Styles of Conflict Management: 

The research work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970’s led to identification of five styles of conflict and the development of a widely used self-assessment called the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI.

Their work suggested that we all have a primary, preferred way to deal with conflict, which serves us well is some situations, but not all. The key to success for us is to develop a flexible toolkit of approaches, and use the one that best fits the situation.

The more you can get comfortable with each way of dealing with conflict, the more effective you will be.

Here’s a summary of the five styles, and a guide for when and when not to use each one:

1. Collaborating

With the collaborating approach, you work with the person(s) to develop a win-win solution. In this approach, the focus in on finding a win-win solution that meets everyone’s needs.

This style is appropriate when:

  • The situation is not urgent
  • An important decision needs to be made
  • The conflict involves a large number of people, or people across different teams
  • Previous conflict resolution attempts have failed

This style is not appropriate when:

  • A decision needs to be made urgently
  • The matter is trivial to all involved

    See How to be a Collaborative Leader.

    2. Competing

    With a competitive approach, the person in conflict takes a firm stand. They compete with the other person for power, and they typically win (unless they’re up against someone else who is competing). This style is often seen as aggressive, and can often be the cause of other people in the conflict feeling taken advantage of.

    This style is appropriate when:

    • A decision needs to be made quickly (i.e., emergencies)
    • An unpopular decision needs to be made
    • Someone is trying to take advantage of a situation

    This style is not appropriate when:

    • People are feeling sensitive about the conflict
    • The situation is not urgent
    • Buy-in is important

    3. Compromising

    With the compromising approach, each person in the conflict gives up something that contributes towards the conflict resolution.

    This style is appropriate when:

    • A decision needs to be made sooner rather than later (meaning the situation is important but not urgent)
    • Resolving the conflict is more important than having each individual “win”
    • Power between people in the conflict is equal

    This style is not appropriate when:

    • A wide variety of important needs must be met
    • The situation is extremely urgent
    • One person holds more power than another

      3. Accommodating

      The accommodating style is one of the most passive conflict resolution styles. With this style, one of the individuals gives up what they want so that the other person can have what they want. In general, this style is not very effective, but it is appropriate in certain scenarios.

      This style is appropriate when:

      • Maintaining the relationship is more important than winning
      • The issue at hand is very important to the other person but is not important to you

      This style is not appropriate when:

      • The issue is important to you
      • Accommodating will not permanently solve the problem

      5. Avoiding

      The last approach is to avoid the conflict entirely.

      People who use this style tend to accept decisions without question, avoid confrontation, and delegate difficult decisions and tasks. Avoiding is another passive approach that is typically not effective, but it does have its uses.

      This style is appropriate when:

      • The issue is trivial
      • The conflict will resolve itself on its own soon

      This style is not appropriate when:

      • The issue is important to you or those close to you (such as your team)
      • The conflict will continue or get worse without attention

      The Bottom Line: 

      There is not one “right” or “wrong” style – each has its time and place. Learn when and how to use all five and you’ll be much more effective than always relying on what your preferred style is. As a manager, learn to suggest different approaches based on these five styles when striving to defuse conflict on your team. 

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      Edited by Art Petty