Learning & Development, Technology

Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: How Managers Can Use Tools to Understand How to Address It

Conflict. How does that word make you feel? In particular, how does conflict in the workplace make you feel? When we asked that question as part of a research project, many said that conflict made them feel anxious or stressed, others that they found it awkward or uncomfortable, or angry or frustrated, or demotivated or helpless. But for 10% of our respondents, their reaction was, well conflict can be useful. Though conflict can destroy relationships, it can, when resolved, strengthen them too.

Through conflict, different views and opinions are aired, and that can lead to better solutions, new ideas, and innovation. Conflict can build our self-awareness. And sometimes, it’s good to just clear the air and move on. But in order to achieve these positive results, and to avoid negative outcomes like broken relationships, loss of trust, anger, anxiety, stress, or a toxic work environment, it’s important that conflict is managed and resolved effectively. And to do that, we need two things. First, we need a framework to understand conflict and second, we need to be able to adapt our approach to fit the situation.

Understanding Our Approach to Conflict

At heart, conflict is simply a situation where two individuals, groups, or parties have divergent interests, needs, values, or goals, and where these are (or appear to be) incompatible with each other. At this level, many negotiations or discussions at work are a low-level form of conflict.

The way in which we approach conflict and how we attempt to resolve it will depend on several factors. Some of these will depend on the specific situation, such as how much time is available, the complexity of the issue, the importance of the issue to you, the importance of your relationship with the other person, the outcomes and behaviors that your organization tends to reward, and so on. But some of what you do will be, well, what you usually do. We all have our individual preferences, our unique conflict style, our favorite approach to conflict, and it’s the combination of the situation and your individual style that drives your conflict behavior. If we know what our default style is, that gives us the power to adapt our approach to better fit the needs of the situation. If we don’t, then out of habit we’ll tend to take the same approach to any conflict situation. Sometimes, this will be what the occasion demands; often it won’t be.

The TKI Framework

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Indicator (TKI) model and assessment is a way of helping us to identify our default approach to conflict. The TKI is based around two facets that affect our conflict behavior. All of us are more or less co-operative; satisfying the concerns of people is very important to some of us, and not so important to others. And we are more or less assertive; we differ in how important it is for us to satisfy our own concerns. The combination of these two factors means that there are five different ways in which we might deal with conflict, five different conflict modes:

  • Low co-operative and low assertive: Avoiding. Sees conflict as an interruption or a disruption, diverting energy from the task and causing unnecessary stress. Tries to avoid conflict, sidesteps issues, or withdraws entirely. Issues may be allowed to remain unresolved.
  • High co-operative and low assertive: Accommodating. Wants to be supportive and to maintain relationships. May neglect their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of other people.
  • Low co-operative and high assertive: Competing. See conflict as a contest to be won. Tends to pursue their own goals at others’ expense.
  • High co-operative and high assertive: Collaborating. Conflict is seen as a problem to be solved with others, in order to make quality decisions. Tries to work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both parties.
  • Medium co-operative and medium assertive: Compromising. See conflict as a chance to find the middle ground and an opportunity to make deals. This implies splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground position.

Using the Appropriate Approach to Conflict

Human beings are creatures of habit. We have a default approach to conflict, and if we don’t think about what we are doing, we’ll use that approach again and again. But once we know our favorite mode, and the other possibilities open to us, this gives us the power to flex our approach and use whichever mode is most appropriate for the situation.

Each mode has a role to play, situations where it is the most appropriate approach. For example, look at Avoiding. When people start to think about the modes, they often wonder, is Avoiding ever useful? We’re not meeting our needs, we’re not meeting their needs, everyone loses. Well, sometimes Avoiding will indeed be counterproductive. If you’re just sticking your fingers in your ears and ignoring the situation, hoping that it will just go away, or if you are avoiding the conflict because you aren’t comfortable confronting the other person, then Avoiding really isn’t very effective. But Avoiding can be useful, too. Sometimes the issue just isn’t that important, or it’s not important anymore. Sometimes you need to defuse the situation first, or gather more information, and sometimes you really aren’t the right person to deal with it. All five conflict modes have their uses.

At the opposite end of the scale, you might think, why not use Collaborating all the time? It seems to be a win-win where everyone’s needs are met! However, Collaborating can be hard work. It can be stressful, it takes time, everyone involved needs to trust in the process and be willing to take part. And if you’re using this mode, you’ll need good interpersonal skills to have some difficult conversations and achieve a resolution. Collaborating is more intense and takes more effort, but sometimes it is what is needed, for example when both sides of an issue are important, for innovative solutions to complex problems, when you need to get buy-in and commitment, or when you need to test your own views and understand those of others.

Competing can be useful when things need to happen quickly, or when you genuinely need to force things through (and you are really sure that you are right). Accommodating can be the best approach when the issue is very important to the other person, but not so important for you, or to build relationships, or when you realise that perhaps you don’t have the expertise, or maybe you could be wrong. And Compromising has its place too, for example when both parties are equally powerful and the issue is equally important to both, especially if there is a stalemate, as a temporary solution to complex problems to buy time, or when there are time constraints and a quick, expedient solution is needed.

For successful resolution of conflict in the workplace, it’s important to remember that:

  • Everybody, including you, has choices in a conflict.
  • All five conflict-handling modes are available to you.
  • Your choice of which mode to use is within your control.
  • You can steer conflicts in different directions by choosing different modes.
  • You should give yourself time to think. If you react immediately, without conscious awareness of your behaviour, you are probably operating out of your old habits.

John Hackston is a chartered psychologist and Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company where he leads the company’s Oxford-based research team. He is a frequent commentator on the effects of personality type on work and life, and has authored numerous studies, published papers in peer-reviewed journals, presented at conferences for organizations such as The British Association for Psychological Type, and has written on various type-related subjects in top outlets such as Harvard Business Review.

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