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Five approaches to conflict management

Conflict exists everywhere and the workplace is no different.  We all bring our moods, perspectives, needs and personalities to work – and they can lead to differences with our colleagues. Left unresolved, collaboration gets lost and productivity falls. 

Conflict makes most of us uncomfortable. Our emotions and hormones rise, we can blame others and then feel guilty. It is easier to run away from conflict rather than try to deal with it. Despite this, conflict can also be a great chance for improvement.

You cannot avoid conflict so building awareness and strategies for managing conflict is a critical skill in leadership and management. And that starts with understanding your own approach to conflict management.

The research work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s led to the identification of five styles of conflict and the development of a widely used self-assessment called the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI. They identified five conflict management approaches that you can use depending on the situation you find yourself in:

  • A sheep approach – accommodating. With this approach you forsake your own needs in exchange for those of others. You either simply give in or are persuaded to given in. This style works when you care less about the issue than the others or when the other party is the expert or has a better solution.
  • An owl approach – collaborating. This style attempts to find a solution where each of you achieve your goals. It’s about achieving a win-win situation by really diving in to understand the needs and wants of both parties. It requires a high level of trust, and it might take a lot of time and effort to get everybody on board and integrate all the ideas. But it is the most likely to bring the long-term solution.
  • A turtle approach – avoiding. This is simply dodging the conflict issue as you are not helping the other party reach their goals, and you aren’t vigorously pursuing your own. This works when the subject is minor or when you have small chances of winning. 
  • A tiger approach – competing. This is the “win-lose” approach. You take charge and you pursue your own concerns without considering anyone else. You might need to act like a tiger if you lack time and need to make a quick decision.
  • A fox approach – compromising – This is the “lose-lose” situation, where no one really gets what they need. This requires a moderate level of assertiveness and cooperation. It may be helpful when you need a temporary solution or where both sides have equally important goals.

Conflict can be resolved. What’s more, it can be positive in terms of highlighting issues, creating collaboration and sparking innovation.  If your organisation is comfortable in challenging each other in the quest for higher performance, then your organisational learning will be improved as a result. The more you can get comfortable with each way of dealing with conflict, the more effective you will be.

When conflict occurs, regardless of which approach you use, the first step is to pause and check with yourself: your state of mind, attitude, and emotions before intervening.

‘Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.‘ William James.

What is happening around you and within you? Remember what the goal and strategy of your company is. Is the person the problem or rather the situation is problematic? What can be positive outcome of it all?

Do not be afraid of conflict, embrace it!

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