By March 11, 2011 26 Comments Read More →

Five Conflict Management Styles at a Glance

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“Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” — Max Lucade

Conflict happens.  How you respond to and resolve conflict will limit or enable your success.  My goal with this post is to give you the tools to understand conflict, learn your own conflict patterns, and empower you to make more effective choices when you are finding or facing conflict.

Embrace Conflict as a Source of Growth and Transformation

Conflict can come from a variety of sources:

  • Goals.  Conflict can happen as a result of conflicting goals or priorities.  It can also happen when there is a lack of shared goals.
  • Personality conflicts.  Personality conflicts are a common cause of conflict.  Sometimes there is no chemistry, or you haven’t figured out an effective way to click with somebody.
  • Scarce resources. Conflict can happen when you’re competing over scarce resources.
  • Styles.   People have different styles.  Your thinking style or communication style might conflict with somebody else’s thinking style or their communication style.  The good news is that conflicts in styles are easy to adapt to when you know how.
  • Values.  Sometimes you will find conflict in values.  The challenge here is that values are core.  Adapting with styles is one thing, but dealing with conflicting values is another.  That’s why a particular business, group, or culture may not be a good fit for you.  It’s also why “bird’s of a feather flock together” and why “opposites attract, but similarities bind.”

By embracing conflict as a part of life, you can make the most of each situation and use it as a learning opportunity or a leadership opportunity.  You can also use it as an opportunity to transform the situation into something better.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a model for handling conflict:

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The model organizes five conflict management styles based on two dimensions:  assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Five Conflict Management Styles

Here are the five conflict management styles according to Thomas, K.W., and R.H. Kilmann:

  1. Accommodating – This is when you cooperate to a high-degree, and it may be at your own expense, and actually work against your own goals, objectives, and desired outcomes.  This approach is effective when the other party is the expert or has a better solution.  It can also be effective for preserving future relations with the other party.
  2. Avoiding -  This is when you simply avoid the issue.  You aren’t helping the other party reach their goals, and you aren’t assertively pursuing your own.  This works when the issue is trivial or when you have no chance of winning.   It can also be effective when the issue would be very costly.  It’s also very effective when the atmosphere is emotionally charged and you need to create some space. Sometimes issues will resolve themselves, but “hope is not a strategy”, and, in general, avoiding is not a good long term strategy.
  3. Collaborating – This is where you partner or pair up with the other party to achieve both of your goals.  This is how you break free of the “win-lose” paradigm and seek the “win-win.”  This can be effective for complex scenarios where you need to find a novel solution.  This can also mean re-framing the challenge to create a bigger space and room for everybody’s ideas.  The downside is that it requires a high-degree of trust and reaching a consensus can require a lot of time and effort to get everybody on board and to synthesize all the ideas.
  4. Competing – This is the “win-lose” approach.  You act in a very assertive way to achieve your goals, without seeking to cooperate with the other party, and it may be at the expense of the other party.    This approach may be appropriate for emergencies when time is of the essence, or when you need quick, decisive action, and people are aware of and support the approach.
  5. Compromising – This is the “lose-lose” scenario where neither party really achieves what they want.  This requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation.  It may be appropriate for scenarios where you need a temporary solution, or where both sides have equally important goals.   The trap is to fall into compromising as an easy way out, when collaborating would produce a better solution.

By knowing your own default patterns you improve your self-awareness.  Once you are aware of your own patterns, you can pay attention to whether they are working for you and you can explore alternatives.  By using a scenario-based approach, you can choose more effective conflict management styles and test their effectiveness for you and your situations.

Photo by ashraful kadir

26 Comments on "Five Conflict Management Styles at a Glance"

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  1. “By embracing conflict as a part of life, you can make the most of each situation and use it as a learning opportunity or a leadership opportunity. ”

    I like how you put that. So many problems come from not dealing with conflict. Avoidance is short-term thinking, embracing is long term.

  2. Chris Edgar says:

    Hi J.D. — yes, I think that’s very important awareness — understanding how we relate to the discomfort that comes along with being in a conflict situation. And I think the only way to develop that awareness is to put ourselves in situations where we’re at risk of conflict — by openly speaking what we want and how we feel, as opposed to designing our lives to “keep everything smooth.”

  3. My response to conflict used to be, “Why must I suffer so for the inadequacies of the rest of the human race”.

    I’ve evolved since then.

    Thanks for helping me take the next step.

  4. JD says:

    @ Fred — I make a lot of mistakes on a regular basis as part of a “fail fast” approach, and I’ve learned the more I take things head on, the quicker the issues dissipate.

    @ Chris — I like your emphasis on awareness as the key to change. It reminds me of the saying, “If we do as we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.”

    @ Jimmy — I think conflict will be an increasing part of our knowledge worker fabric, and those that embrace it and drive for collaboration will rise to the top. You’re on path.

  5. J.D.Great informative post. I can see why having all this information is helpful and knowing your default patterns can really help you work through conflict in the best way. I thought that conflict mode instrument you shared was really interesting too. Thanks for all the great information. I am now ready to deal with conflict :)

  6. J.D.
    Great, informative post with great take-away value. I learned quite a bit. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Jon says:

    As Fred stated earlier, I like how you embrace the opportunities of conflict. That’s a great mindset to have because you’re focusing on the mutually beneficial outcome for all parties; a learning opportunity that nourishes all parties involved.

    Jon

  8. Sandra Lee says:

    J. D.,

    This is brilliant. I loved the starting quote. What I take away from this is the importance of transcending your own style and having all these options at your finger tips. Flexibility will expand optimal outcomes. Conflict over values is an area of concern for me in particular. How do you get people on board with new values without alienating them, is a question I often ponder.

    Thanks for this nutritional input for the mind!

  9. Adrenalynn says:

    It is so hard to keep a clear head when in the middle of a conflict, but these tools give an excellent foundation for handling conflict!

  10. JD says:

    @ Sibyl — Thank you. This is definitely a case where knowledge is power. I find it very empowering simply knowing what my options are, so I can make a more effective choice.

    @ Jennifer — Thank you.

    @ Jon — It really is a small world, and it’s very connected. I find that finding ways to pair up, team up, and seeking the win-win helps create space and keep bridges intact.

    @ Sandra — I was so happy to find such pithy words of wisdom. Some quotes really do hit home. One approach that has helped me when there’s a conflict of values is to focus on their strengths, and get curious about what I can learn. This always seems to build a bridge, and create a growth opportunity.

    @ Adrenalynn — Yeah, sometimes it seems like conflict would be solved better with a pillow fight. I think the one mantra that helps me stay in check is “stand strong when tested.” When I can remember that line, it helps me refocus.

  11. rob white says:

    Hi JD,
    This is very empowering. Understanding our own patterns and tendencies is essential to determining what works for us and what works against us. As we begin noticing the rigidness of our tendencies, we get to take out the rigidity and find opportunity and solutions that exist outside of our habitual way of thinking.

  12. JD says:

    @ Rob — I think you nailed exactly what I like about patterns — they give us options and opportunities. Rather than a “one-trick pony”, we can fill our toolbox with prove practices and powerful perspectives to draw from.

  13. Hilary says:

    Hi JD .. I love the simplicity of the diagram .. where the choices are set out .. and so often we mindset ourselves into the wrong box and through word and deed, we nail ourselves in .. and the only way out .. is saying I’m sorry .. and getting out.

    We always have options don’t we .. and therefore can make the choice that’s appropriate to those circumstances ..

    Thanks – Hilary

  14. JD says:

    @ Hilary — I’m always amazed by how much clarity a simple frame or figure can bring to even complicated topics.

    I really like your point about getting stuck in the wrong box and choosing to get out. It’s truly empowering when we recognize and exercise our options.

  15. John Deases says:

    Very prolific and powerful. Thanks.

  16. Infoshelter says:

    As you pointed out in your post, conflict is inherent to human nature due to the fact that, we either claim something from other people or we defend what we believe belongs to us. In fact, the way humans have managed conflict throughout history has been an integral part and has determined the direction of human evolution.
    Modern management theory have contributed a lot towards modeling conflict and applying theoretical approaches to categorize, study and use it in a constructive manner in the workplace. I believe your detailed analysis has helped to “tame” this ambiguous, yet highly useful-in terms of progress-concept.

  17. vishwa nath choudhary says:

    Dear Author,
    you have explained with such a simple diagram, the most complicated topic an d related to everybodies’day to day life, where whether i like or not but have to face such situation.you put it in such a simple managerial style that i loved. in fact , my personal and professional experiences have supported your post. thanks a lot.
    v n choudhary, a mechanical engineer superannuated from post of dy gm from an downstream oil major in india.

  18. Pam says:

    I am experiencing a very ‘silly’ conflict with my boyfriend, (although in his world, I am referred to as his ex-girlfriend). No matter what I say to him he ‘does not want to get back together’, because of this silly disagreement we had. These comments that have been posted have helped me to realize that he is choosing ‘avoidance’ as a conflict management style, and I am choosing ‘accomodate’, yet we both need to be choosing ‘colloborate’. The funny thing about all this is that the disagreement is over some ‘pyrex dishes’. Yep, I kid you not, he has accused me of ‘stealing’ pyrex dishes when I moved out of our living arrangement. I have explained to him that I would not deliberately take things that did not belong to me!! But he just won’t listen. And so I am using the pyrex dishes as leverage that if he is willing to talk this out (ie: go to couple’s counseling, or get some sort of 3rd party involved to help us learn to cooperate with each other better) then I will give him his pyrex dishes back. The other side of the story is that he owes me $2,500 for some furniture that I bought while living with him, and he is not willing to give me the money until I give him the pyrex dishes. So there are two things, maybe more going on here: the trust in the relationship is not strong, and the ability for us to cooperate is not strong.
    By reading your articles, I learned so much!! The one part that resonates with me the most is: “conflict is inherent to human nature due to the fact that, we either claim something from other people or we defend what we believe belongs to us”, and “embrace the opportunities of conflict. That’s a great mindset to have because you’re focusing on the mutually beneficial outcome for all parties; a learning opportunity that nourishes all parties involved.” Once people can get past resolving a conflict, things can grow stronger and deeper!! This is so awesome to learn!!

  19. this is very useful for lifetym skills,thank you

  20. Kerry Kennedy says:

    I think everyone needs to be heard and everyone has their story.

    This was great info to add to my arsenal..joking

    I love that with some communication expertise we can get our point across with out being
    aggressive.

    eg I statements..owning the feelings without being accusatory.

    Lots of great info, thank you.

  21. Rita Adzedakor says:

    I have now learnt how to deal with conflict anytime am confronted with.thanks for your views on conflict.I think when everybody adapt the management style,conflict will not lead to war in our communities and countries

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