Organisations are likely to benefit if leaders are able to identify and understand their own unique approach.
Almost all human resource professionals deal with conflict in the workplace, with the most common causes involving warring egos and personality clashes, poor leadership, lack of honesty, stress and mismatched values.
Although conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace, it can lead to absenteeism, lost productivity and mental health issues.
At the same time, conflict can be a motivator that generates new ideas and innovation, as well as increased flexibility and a better understanding of working relationships. However, in order to ensure an organisation’s success, conflict needs to be effectively managed.
A critical competency for today’s working professional is to understand that we each have our own way of dealing with conflict. According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®), there are five major styles of conflict management: collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising.
To understand the different conflict resolution styles, it’s important to be familiar with what they are and how to identify them in practice, both in ourselves and among our peers. Each strategy has its own benefits; there is no right or wrong conflict management style. Understanding how one instinctively responds to conflicts as well as having increased awareness of other conflict management styles may alter one’s typical approach to specific situations and lead to efficient and effective conflict resolution. Better control of conflict can produce an improved working environment and result in a better bottom line.
The first style—collaborating—is a combination of being assertive and cooperative. Those who collaborate try to find a solution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns. When collaborating, both parties will feel like they have come to a resolution and get what they want with minimal negative feelings. Collaborating works best when the long-term relationship and outcome are important, and you can take the time to find out each other’s interests, such as in a situation where two departments of a company are merging.
Competing fits those who are assertive and steadfast in pursuing their own interests at the expense of others. This style is most effective when a higher value is placed on the outcome as opposed to the longer-term relationship. For example, it can be applied well when an organisation is competing with another company for a new client. However, this style tends not to work well inside an organisation, where a much higher value is placed on relationship building.
Avoidance is adopted by those who look to avoid conflict at all costs. It often involves being unassertive and uncooperative, to either diplomatically sidestep or defer dealing with an issue, or to simply withdraw from a threatening situation altogether. This style is most effective when the person adopting it views it as a safer option to postpone dealing with the situation, or when the outcome is not a great concern. An example would be a conflict that arises between two co-workers when one uses a mobile phone for long personal phone calls during work hours. The other co-worker may not like it, but can avoid confronting the colleague.
Accommodating is the opposite style to competing, and contains an element of self-sacrifice to satisfy another person. While it may seem generous, adopting this style could see a situation where less assertive colleagues are put at a disadvantage, potentially causing resentment. This style is best used when the relationship is of more value than the particular outcome in the given situation. For example, you may be asked to dinner by a client and go along with their choice of restaurant, even though it may not be your first choice.
The final style to consider is that of compromise. This style aims to find an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties in the conflict while maintaining some assertiveness and cooperation. It is best to use this style when the outcome is not crucial and time is against you; for instance, when you just need to make a decision and move on to more important things and are willing to give a little to get the decision made. It is worth noting, however, that a compromise can be defined as neither side being happy with the result, the effects of which may need to be considered carefully moving forward.
Being aware of your own default style is the first step in helping you to manage conflicts. Once you understand the differences in the other styles, you can begin to apply them to different situations in the most appropriate way. In addition, this identification can help you resolve existing or repeating conflicts in the workplace through knowing you have a choice and then framing the appropriate response.
By knowing how to use the conflict management styles effectively, you can begin to take charge of those uncomfortable conflict situations in your workplace.
Dr. Benoliel is a researcher and conflict resolution expert and a faculty member for the PhD in Human and Social Services program at Walden University, an accredited U.S. institution. She is a certified professional mediator and mitigation specialist and the president of Preferred Solutions, a conflict management consulting and mediation services organization that provides solutions for businesses, governments and institutions. She is a past president of the ADR Institute of Ontario™.