Workplace conflict is common. With the increasing complexity of projects, products, marketing, strategy, policy, leadership, etc. it is inevitable that people will have differences of attitude, view, belief, opinion, value or need. This is often seen as a bad thing but wait… good decisions are those that take into account a number of perspectives. Without conflict we lose richness and our decisions lack depth. The more views taken into account in the decision-making, the less chance that the course of action will fail later on. Your art as a leader, lies in thinking positively about conflict and seeing it for the valuable phenomenon it is.
So how do you navigate the conflict and resolve it as quickly and efficiently as possible without losing the benefits? Here is a model which may help.
Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann’s research during the 1970s identified five basic modes of approaching conflict based on the levels of importance you attach to your own needs and to the needs of the other person:
Competing – your needs are paramount – you stand up for what you think is right or, perhaps, simply try to win. It may be that you see achieving your objective as more important than preserving the relationship. Good for quick decisions but it may come across as harsh.
Accommodating – the opposite of Competing – perhaps you don’t care about the issue or maybe harmony is more important. Unlikely to lead to the best decision, but you may be able to demand a favour in return later.
Avoiding – attaching no importance to either your needs or theirs – sidestepping the conflict; it may buy you time, but it does not resolve the differences. Only really appropriate where the issue is trivial and everybody’s attention should be on more important matters.
Collaborating – the opposite of Avoiding – a genuine attempt to satisfy everybody’s needs. Sometimes time-intensive, but if parties are committed, it can lead to new and original solutions. The only true ‘win-win’ approach. Good for situations in which a good quality decision is essential; where quality is more important than speed.
Compromising – all needs are important but it is acknowledged that not all needs can be met – agreement is reached but nobody gets everything that they want; it is democratic but not always satisfying. Useful where a deadline may be looming or where any solution is better than none.
Ultimately, the ‘correct’ approach depends on the situation, how much time you have and the relative roles of the people involved (politics is always a powerful factor.)
Next time you are faced with managing a conflict with or among your people, why not take a moment to think about which of the five approaches is the most positive to take?