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Managing workplace conflicts

What is conflict?

Here we are defining conflict as simply: “Times when people’s concerns appear to be incompatible.” This does not mean that we are about to start swinging; just that we have differences in those things that we think are important to us. 

And as we know more about how to handle these differences, we can increase workplace effectiveness and improve interactions. Handling conflicts is a skill, something that we can learn to do.

Some say that working through conflicts in a constructive way is the only way to achieve forward progress. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone thought the same, acted the same, and had the same values!

So how do we do this?

As with so many things, it starts with knowing what is going on with ourselves, how we prefer to handle conflicts. Then we need to understand how others handle conflicts. And this can vary according to the situation. The point is to step back, be self-aware and mindful of what’s at stake for you and the other side.

Two highly regarded consultants in the area of workplace conflicts, Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, have defined 5 modes of handling conflicts, based on surveys with thousands of managers. You may have used their tool, known as the TKI, to measure your preferences.

Competing: you try to satisfy your own concerns at the other person’s expense

Collaborating: you try to find a win-win solution that completely satisfies both people’s concerns

Compromising: you try to find an acceptable settlement that only partially satisfies both people’s concerns

Avoiding: you sidestep the conflict without trying to satisfy either person’s concerns

Accommodating: you attempt to satisfy the other person’s concerns at the expense of your own

Each of these modes has a place to be used, depending on the situation. Your skill at knowing when to use a particular mode, how to maximize the benefit and minimize the cost, can have a huge impact on your workplace performance. What often happens is that we over-use one style, which may not be the best for that occasion. “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Some examples

Here are some descriptions of when you might want to use, or not use, a particular conflict mode:

Competing: hard bargaining
Benefit: asserting your position
Cost: strained work relationships

Collaborating: combining insights into a richer understanding
Benefit: high quality decisions
Cost: time and energy required

Compromising: soft bargaining: splitting the difference
Benefit: speed and expediency
Cost: suboptimal solutions

Avoiding: postponing a discussion until later
Benefit: saving time
Cost: delays

Accommodating: deferring to another’s expertise
Benefit: building relationships
Cost: sacrificed concerns

(source: “Introduction to Conflict Management” Kenneth W. Thomas)

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

If you would like to know more about conflict modes, and how to increase your skills at handling conflicts, please contact me for log-in information on the TKI tool.

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