Ap­proach­ing Con­flict with Tact and Ma­tu­rity

Trillions - - In This Issue - By Dr. Chance T. Ea­ton

You have been sit­ting in a meet­ing with your staff, weigh­ing al­ter­na­tive solutions to a re­cent prob­lem that has sur­faced. The de­ci­sion is an im­por­tant one, but time is of the essence. Due to the time sen­si­tiv­ity, you rec­om­mend a par­tic­u­lar so­lu­tion, and nearly ev­ery­one agrees with it – ex­cept Allen. Dur­ing the meet­ing, he isn’t con­struc­tive and ap­pears to be cyn­i­cal to any rec­om­mended solutions. You feel your team is nearly all be­hind you, so you pull the trig­ger with the new so­lu­tion.

Half an hour af­ter the meet­ing you run into Allen in the hall and he says: “You know, your plan stinks, and I think you are be­ing an in­com­pe­tent fool for in­sist­ing on it. Go ahead and do it your way – that is what we al­ways do around here any­way!”

How do you han­dle this sit­u­a­tion? Most man­agers I ask take an as­sertive po­si­tion, ad­vo­cat­ing putting Allen in his place, likely with a step in pro­gres­sive dis­ci­pline. But is this the wis­est ap­proach? Con­flict is very com­plex, and ef­fec­tive teams ben­e­fit from hav­ing a ba­sic knowl­edge of con­flict man­age­ment.

Con­flict, by def­i­ni­tion, is “an ex­pressed strug­gle be­tween at least two in­ter­de­pen­dent par­ties who per­ceive in­com­pat­i­ble goals, scarce re­sources and in­ter­fer­ences from oth­ers in achiev­ing their goals” (Wil­mot & Hocker, 2001, p. 41). The truth is that con­flict ex­ists to some ex­tent in all or­ga­ni­za­tions and is a nat­u­ral as­pect of all so­cial re­la­tion­ships (Snow­den & Gor­ton, 2002). We must re­mem­ber that con­flict is nor­mal and can some­times be pos­i­tive – es­pe­cially when it causes us to ex­plore new ideas, test po­si­tions and iden­tify new solutions. Con­flict is un­healthy when it dam­ages the trust be­tween two par­ties and leads to fight-flight-freeze re­sponses.

The num­ber one prob­lem with con­flict in the work­place isn’t con­flict in and of it­self but that em­ploy­ees re­sort to their pre­ferred con­flict ap­proaches and do not re­al­ize they have the abil­ity to flex into al­ter­na­tive styles de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. By liv­ing in only one type of con­flict mode, you are set­ting your­self up for even more con­flict and team dis­en­gage­ment.

One of the most rec­og­nized con­flict style mod­els comes from Ken­neth Thomas and Ralph Kil­mann (1973) and is now a pop­u­lar as­sess­ment pub­lished by Con­sult­ing Psy­chol­o­gists Press (as­sertive­ness and co­op­er­a­tive­ness di­men­sions (Fig­ure 1). No one mode is bet­ter than an­other, but peo­ple have a ten­dency to fa­vor cer­tain modes over oth­ers. Here is a short de­scrip­tion of each mode:

Avoid­ance: A low-as­sertive and low-co­op­er­a­tive con­flict ap­proach, it is pas­sive and ig­nores con­flict sit­u­a­tions. The pos­i­tives of this ap­proach are that it can be used for triv­ial is­sues or a cool­ing-off pe­riod, has lit­tle chance of chang­ing some­thing and needs more in­for­ma­tion be­fore a de­ci­sion is made. The neg­a­tive of this ap­proach is that it can lead to fur­ther stress and con­flict due to the lack of ac­tion.

This mode can be de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways. You can shut down, say “I don’t want to deal with this!” and storm out of a room, or you can say “I need more time to think about this. I’m not ready to make a de­ci­sion or pro­vide an opin­ion right now.”

Com­pe­ti­tion: A high-as­sertive and low-co­op­er­a­tive con­flict ap­proach. The pos­i­tive of this ap­proach is that it is ap­pro­pri­ate when de­ci­sive ac­tion or a change is needed. The neg­a­tive of this ap­proach is that it may be lim­ited to one party at­tempt­ing to beat an­other party, lead­ing to hos­tile and de­struc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

This mode can be de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways. You can bully, push peo­ple over and throw things across the room un­til you get what you want, or you can say “Hear me out. I have good ev­i­dence to show that this is a good ap­proach, and if you give it a lit­tle time, I hope you can see why I think this is such an im­por­tant so­lu­tion.”

Ac­com­mo­da­tion: A low-as­sertive and high-co­op­er­a­tive con­flict ap­proach. The pos­i­tives of this ap­proach are that it can lead to har­mony in the re­la­tion­ship and build so­cial de­posits in trust ac­counts and is non-di­rec­tive be­cause oth­ers can be in­flu­en­tial in the sit­u­a­tion. The neg­a­tive of this ap­proach is that a per­son may sac­ri­fice their own val­ues to main­tain har­mo­nious re­la­tion­ships and, in ex­treme sit­u­a­tions, lose their own iden­tity be­cause they are in the busi­ness of serv­ing oth­ers over them­selves.

This mode can be de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways. You can serve ev­ery­one else to the point where you be­come a “door­mat” to oth­ers, or you can choose to help those around you form har­mony be­cause the team is more im­por­tant in this sit­u­a­tion than your own per­sonal needs.

Com­pro­mise: A mod­er­ately as­sertive and mod­er­ately co­op­er­a­tive con­flict ap­proach. The pos­i­tives of this ap­proach are that it forces an equal bal­ance be­tween the par­ties and quick solutions can re­sult from the set­tle­ment of a com­plex sit­u­a­tion. The neg­a­tives of this ap­proach are that it may not go far enough in re­solv­ing the con­flict and may ap­pear as “let’s make a deal” gamesmanship.

This mode can be de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways. You can cre­ate a cyn­i­cal cli­mate of gamesmanship, los­ing sight of the larger issue by fo­cus­ing on strat­egy and tac­tics, or you can see that the best so­lu­tion at the cur­rent mo­ment is to ar­gue for what you need but be will­ing to con­cede on some needs so that you can move for­ward as a team.

Col­lab­o­ra­tion: A high-as­sertive and high-co­op­er­a­tive con­flict ap­proach. The pos­i­tives of this ap­proach are that all par­ties win and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is pos­i­tive, lead­ing to strength­ened re­la­tion­ships, ev­ery­one be­ing heard and, most im­por­tant, new solutions never imag­ined be­fore coming to light. The neg­a­tive of this ap­proach is that it is the most dif­fi­cult to achieve be­cause it re­quires great ef­fort and time from all the in­volved par­ties.

This mode can be de­liv­ered in dif­fer­ent ways. You can spend too much time look­ing for col­lab­o­ra­tion on in­signif­i­cant is­sues and un­nec­es­sar­ily slow down the speed of busi­ness, or you can use col­lab­o­ra­tion as an ap­proach to all con­flict, seek­ing creativ­ity and ap­pre­ci­at­ing the di­ver­sity of opin­ion, with the goal in mind to be syn­er­gis­tic in cre­at­ing solutions.

Since the model is be­hav­ioral in na­ture, it can change and is sit­u­a­tion spe­cific. For ex­am­ple, when I take the TKI from a home per­spec­tive, I score high in the nor­ma­tive data­base for Ac­com­mo­dat­ing, but when I take it from a work per­spec­tive (work­ing with a spe­cific group of peo­ple), I score high in Com­pet­ing. Your styles

can change from day to day, sit­u­a­tion to sit­u­a­tion. The art of con­flict man­age­ment is to know your pre­ferred ap­proaches and learn to flex to the sit­u­a­tion.

Back to the orig­i­nal work sit­u­a­tion I posed. What is the ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse to the em­ployee Allen who in­ap­pro­pri­ately lashed out to you re­gard­ing a de­ci­sion? When I train in this sub­ject and pose this par­tic­u­lar sce­nario, I typ­i­cally hear stu­dents use a va­ri­ety of con­flict ap­proaches. For ex­am­ple, they of­ten say to start a small dose of as­sertive­ness: “This is not a pro­fes­sional con­ver­sa­tion, and I will sched­ule us a meet­ing time to­day to un­der­stand in greater de­tail.” By sched­ul­ing a meet­ing time, you have in­tro­duced some tem­po­rary avoid­ance, giv­ing the em­ployee an op­por­tu­nity to cool down. If some­one is already in an amyg­dala hi­jack, noth­ing con­struc­tive can come from the con­ver­sa­tion, and you are likely to also move into an amyg­dala hi­jack, mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion even worse. In the fol­low-up meet­ing, you may ask ques­tions to un­der­stand why Allen was so up­set about the de­ci­sion, ex­plor­ing his per­spec­tive in greater de­tail. This is a tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­dat­ing mode. The con­ver­sa­tion can go lots of ways from here – maybe Allen dis­closes a ma­jor per­sonal chal­lenge, like feel­ings of be­ing un­heard or rec­og­nized, or maybe he has been hu­mil­i­ated by the other em­ploy­ees and can’t go along with any­one’s de­ci­sions on the team. With­out a doubt, as­sertive­ness will come back up as you tell Allen that such out­bursts are in­ap­pro­pri­ate in a pro­fes­sional work en­vi­ron­ment – per­haps pro­vid­ing a writ­ten warn­ing in some cases. We can play this small con­ver­sa­tion out lots of ways, but the point is that highly ef­fec­tive em­ploy­ees and lead­ers be­come com­fort­able flex­ing into mul­ti­ple con­flict modes.

Con­flict is very com­plex, and I can at­test that poorly man­aged com­mu­ni­ca­tion around con­flict can cre­ate hell for a team. When the modes are un­der­stood and prac­ticed ef­fec­tively, teams can learn to ap­proach dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions with tact and ma­tu­rity, re­sult­ing in greater trust and team en­gage­ment.

Kil­mann, R. H., & Thomas, K. W. (1977). “De­vel­op­ing a force-choice mea­sure for con­flict-han­dling be­hav­ior: the mode in­stru­ment.” Ed­u­ca­tional & Psy­cho­log­i­cal Mea­sure­ment, 37, 2, p. 309-325.

Snow­den, P. E., & Gor­ton, R. A. (2002). School Lead­er­ship and Ad­min­is­tra­tion (6th ed.). New York: Mcgraw-hill.

Wil­mot, W., & Hocker, J. (2001). In­ter­per­sonal Con­flict. Bos­ton: Mcgraw-hill.

Dr. Chance Ea­ton has over a decade’s worth of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing in the field of learn­ing and or­ga­ni­za­tional devel­op­ment. Due to his unique ed­u­ca­tional and work ex­pe­ri­ences in fi­nance, psy­chol­ogy, lead­er­ship and man­age­ment, ed­u­ca­tion, noetic sciences and agri­cul­ture, Dr. Ea­ton pro­vides his clients with rel­e­vant busi­ness solutions grounded in the­ory and re­search. To learn more about Dr. Ea­ton’s ser­vices, visit HRSo­lu­tion­sin­ter­na­tional.com.

Photo by Si­mon de Bakker, CC

Fig­ure 1

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