Leadership Guide for Managing Conflict, Part 2: What Conflict-Handling Styles to Use & When

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Last week, I introduced the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), my favorite tool for developing conflict management knowledge. Leaders can use this tool to identify the way they typically handle conflict, and to make informed decisions about choosing an appropriate style when facing conflict.

After understanding the five conflict-handling styles, and identifying which style you use most, how do you decide which style is most appropriate for any given conflict? In this part of my three part series on conflict, I will discuss when to use, and when not to use, each conflict-handling style.

First, use this table as a review and quick reference to TKI’s five types of conflict-handling styles:

Table of Conflict Styles Based on TKI


C O M P E T I N G 

When to use:

  • There is an emergency that requires quick and decisive action.

  • When unpopular steps are necessary, such as enforcing rules, disciplining team members or cutting costs.

  • The company is on the line and you know what it will take to get it back on track.

  • Some people will take advantage of those who display noncompetitive behavior. In this case, it is necessary to adopt a competitive strategy to protect yourself and your interests.

  • Job interviews, negotiating pay and getting on your manager’s calendar.

When not to use:

  • If the outcome doesn’t really matter to you and there is no reason to compete.

  • When you are not the subject matter expert; competing for the strongest voice on the conflict at hand is inappropriate and will create even more conflict.

  • It is easy to become competitive when you are angry and want to prove a point. Using whatever power you have to express this anger is not beneficial behavior for leaders.

You may be overusing the competing mode of conflict-handling if you find yourself surrounded by “yes men,” or if others are afraid to admit mistakes or ask questions around you.


When to use:

  • Preserving harmony is the most important aspect of the conflict situation.

  • The issue at hand is much more important to the other person or people involved in the conflict.

  • You realize you are wrong. Accommodating in this situation shows that you are reasonable.

  • You want to build social credits for future use.

  • You are outmatched; it would only damage your cause in the long run if you didn’t accommodate.

  • Employee development is your goal; letting your team experiment and learn from their mistakes will enable that.

When not to use:

  • Safety and security are paramount to resolving the conflict.

  • The outcome of the conflict is vital to the organization’s success.

You may be overusing the accommodating mode if discipline in the organization is lax, or if you feel your ideas and concerns don’t get the appropriate level of attention.

A V O I D I N G 

When to use:

  • Emotions are high, and people need to cool down to the level where productive solutions to the conflict are possible.

  • The issue at hand is actually just a result of a much simpler issue that can be solved more easily.

  • Your team is fully capable of solving the conflict without your involvement.

  • More information should be gathered before facing the conflict, in order to resolve it more productively.

  • The benefit of facing the conflict does not outweigh the cost of doing so.

  • There are more pressing issues at hand.

When not to use:

  • The decision at hand must be made quickly.

  • The core reason is to avoid a frank conversation.

You may be overusing the avoiding mode if there is coordination trouble due to waiting on input, there is an atmosphere of “walking on eggshells,” or decisions about important issues are being made by default.

C O L L A B O R A T I N G 

When to use:

  • Your objective is to learn from the conflict. Collaborating is a good way to explore other people’s views.

  • There are hard feelings between members of the conflict that need to be resolved to improve the organization as a whole.

  • The concerns of both parties are too important to be compromised.

When not to use:

  • A quick decision is imperative to the situation.

  • Resources are tight.

  • The conflict is trivial, and doesn’t need the time needed for collaborating.

You may be overusing the collaborative approach to conflict if others are uncommitted to your decisions or policies.

C O M P R O M I S I N G 

When to use:

  • The potential disruption involved with asserting your goals is not worth the effort.

  • The opposing members of the conflict are of equal power standing.

  • You realize the situation is complicated and needs more time to solve than is available. A temporary solution is needed.

  • There is immense time pressure.

When not to use:

  • When compromising ultimately undermines the values and principles of the organization.

  • If an attitude of gaming is noticed, which will deflect attention away from the merits of the actual issues at hand.

You may be overusing the compromising mode if the insistence on compromising takes away focus on larger issues, or if you notice a cynical climate of gamesmanship.

To be most effective, leaders should use all of these conflict styles. Being adaptable and nimble is a strength when it comes to facing conflict in an organization.

Now that we’ve learned about the five conflict-handling modes, and discussed when to use, and not use, each mode, it’s time to test your skills. Stay tuned for next week’s post where I will present various conflict scenarios and you can decide which mode, or combination of modes, would be most productive in reaching resolution.

In retrospect, can you remember a time when you handled a conflict inappropriately? Have you ever shifted modes mid-conflict? Share your stories! Send me an  email, or a tweet.

For a wonderful resource on TKI, please visit CPP: The People Development People.




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