Leadership Guide for Managing Conflict, Part 1: Five Conflict-Management Styles

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Leadership Guide for Managing Conflict, Part 1: Five Conflict-Management Styles

Conflict Management for Leaders is SimpleConflict happens, whether we want it to or not. Most of us have a strong, visceral reaction to conflict, including (but not limited to) fear, avoidance, excitement and/or dread. However, when you boil it down, conflict is just when one person’s wishes and desires are different from another person’s.  It’s the emotions that conflict evokes that can make situations seem explosive.

Leaders need to manage conflict when it arises. So where do leaders start when they want to understand the conflict styles of themselves and others? My favorite tool for developing this knowledge is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI).

In this three part series on conflict, I will introduce TKI, discuss the five ways to manage conflict, and provide practical tips and scenarios for leaders to use as they develop and implement their conflict management skills.

What is TKI?

TKI is a tool that assesses an individual’s typical behavior in conflict situations and describes it along two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. It provides detailed information about how an individual can effectively use five different conflict-handling modes, or styles. TKI helps leaders understand how interpersonal group dynamics are affected by conflict-handling styles, as well as helps them make informed decisions about choosing an appropriate style when approaching a conflict situation.

In the TKI image below, notice the five modes of conflict-handling, as well as where each of these modes falls on the spectrum of assertiveness and cooperativeness.



Now let’s go through each of the five conflict-handling styles.

Five Conflict-Handling Styles

Competing: You try to satisfy your own concerns at another’s expense. In this scenario, you win and they lose. According to TKI, this conflict-handling style is high on the assertive scale and low on the cooperation scale. Some people think competing is bad. I counter that it’s not bad; competition is necessary at times, based on the situation. Competing is appropriate to secure a job, earn a raise, gain organizational resources, win a new client and find time on your manager’s calendar. However, If you only manage conflict through competition, then you are ineffectively managing situations and people.

Collaborating: You try to find a solution to conflict that satisfies all concerned—a win-win. Collaboration is high on both the assertiveness and the cooperation scale and takes a lot of time, resources, energy and bandwidth. Though many leaders encourage collaboration, it is often difficult for both parties to get exactly what they want, which is why it used in high risk situations. Often, when people say “collaborate,” they actually mean either “compromise” or just “work together.”

Compromising: Your solution only partially satisfies each member in the conflict. There are no winners and no losers. Compromising is in the midrange of assertiveness and cooperation. Compromise is an acceptable solution; however, be aware that if you are a leader who only compromises, the team may start to game the system and ask for more than what they truly need as they know their leader will compromise during the negotiations.

5 Conflict-Handling Styles according to TKI

Avoiding: You don’t try to satisfy yourself or other people involved in the conflict. Instead, you stay away from the situation entirely. Avoiding conflict situations indicates low cooperation and low assertiveness and is used when emotions are running high. To be honest, this is a band-aid for the conflict situation; nothing is resolved and the topic is put into a parking lot until later. The fact is, you will have to deal with the conflict eventually.

Accommodating: You are willing to sacrifice your own needs and desires for other people involved in the conflict. You lose and they win. Accommodating is considered high on the cooperation scale and low on the assertiveness scale. Some people think accommodation equates to being doormat. I often hear “Only wimps accommodate; I have a business to run.” This is untrue. Accommodation is the best tool to use in the right situation, when you are not the subject matter expert or when the outcome is not that important to you.

Depending on the situation, each of these conflict management modes can produce a positive or negative experience. To be the most effective, leaders should understand all five conflict-handling modes, and be able to identify the best mode to use for various situations. Understanding these different ways of approaching conflict also develops Emotional Intelligence (EQ), another key element to successful leadership.

In part two of this conflict series, I will cover when to use (and when not to use) each conflict-handling style. Stay tuned!

Are you able to recognize your own conflict-handling behavior? Have you ever tried to experiment with different ways of handling conflict? I’d love to hear about it. Please send me an  email, or a tweet.

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