Managing Conflict in the Workplace

In today’s business climate, any dynamic or stressor which detracts from getting the work done just can’t be tolerated. All of us are faced with doing more with less. Downsizing or right-sizing are common business strategies. Competition is global, not national. Businesses are reconfiguring themselves to compete, or even to survive.

But it’s not all bad news! Business in America today is dynamic, responsive, and more open to new ideas than ever before. But with the kinds of change and quick response this approach generates, work-place stress and conflict are more common than ever before. Employees are finding themselves in evolving roles. They are expected to master more and different skill sets. And more than ever before, work is collaborative rather than done in a vacuum. Team work is the norm rather than the exception, even if the company does not use the words team or team work. With changing expectations, competing priorities, and growing interdependence of workers, opportunities for conflict in the work place abound.

Let’s first identify what we mean by conflict in the workplace: Conflict arises whenever your interests are threatened. Some of these events are minor. You may feel some anxiety or resentment when the new employee unknowingly takes your favorite parking place. Some conflicts may be much more significant. You find that a co-worker is taking credit for your work and blaming you for his mistakes and misjudgments. Just as there are levels of conflict, there are also different ways each of us tends to respond to conflict situations, and each of us seems to have a preferred response style. If you always respond as though the issue is very, very serious, this will cause you problems. However, if you always respond as though someone has parked in your space, this, too will not serve you well.

According to the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Indicator, the ways people tend to respond to conflict situations can be loosely classified into five response types: These are accommodation, competition, collaboration, compromise, and avoidance. Each style is some combination of an effort to meet the needs or interests of others and an effort to meet our own or interests. When we avoid conflict, neither party is having needs met. When we accommodate, we are meeting the needs of the other party, but not our own needs. Conversely, when we meet every conflict with a competitive style, we are determined to meet our own needs at the expense of others’ needs. Compromise is just what it sounds like. Some of each person’s needs are met, and some are not. Collaboration is a state in which both party’s needs are met. So which style do you tend to use naturally, and which style should you be using?

As with most questions like that, it depends. But there is some logic involved, so don’t get discouraged. Once you know how you most naturally respond, let’s next talk about the five responses and their advantages and disadvantages.

Five responses and their advantages and disadvantages

Remember, this one is where no one gets needs met. So why would you ever use this style? If the situation is too emotional, you may want to table it for a while until people calm down and the situation can be discussed more constructively. If, however, you always avoid any conflict at the expense of your own needs, you are doing yourself no favors. And, frankly, you are being less than honest with your co-workers as well. You may be angry or hurt to the point where your work is impacted, but no one knows why. This can be disastrous, both for you and for your work group if you over-use this style.

This style is where you don’t get your needs met, but others do. Again, why should you ever do this? Let’s say you have a co-worker who really, really wants to take the lead on a particular project. You don’t have the same passion she does for this project, although you are aware that either of you could be logical choices for the lead role. You decide not to lobby for the assignment yourself, but to suggest that it might be an appropriate role for her. Her needs are met. If you infer that you may have had some level of desire to be assigned a lead role here, your needs are not met.

Let’s revisit the previous example. Assume the project in question is large enough to sort of split the lead role between the two of you. You both may have preferred to have the whole project, but you agree to divide responsibilities for the lead role. Some of your needs are met and some of her needs are met. But some of each person’s needs are not met, too.

Again, let’s revisit the assignment of the project lead role. Were you to employ a competition style, you would do everything in your power to get the entire lead role for yourself regardless of whether or not the other person got anything she wanted. Is there ever an appropriate use of this style? Yes. If there is an emergency, such as a fire in the building, you aren’t going to ask people how they feel about leaving! You are going to be directive and order them to get out now.

But how about in day-to-day operations rather than emergencies? Yes, again. There are cases in which the decision is not open for discussion, regardless of how it may impact others. A plant has to close. A department has to be restructured. A job is eliminated. It would be dishonest and even cruel to pretend that the topics are open for discussion. Even though the needs of the other person are certainly impacted by these kinds of events, management simply has to proceed with respectfully and compassionately informing the workforce when these kinds of actions must take place.

Collaboration is a style in which both parties have all their needs met. Difficult? Yes. Time –consuming? Yes. Appropriate for every conflict? No. Collaboration is appropriate when the subject at hand is very important to both parties, and when the outcome is critical to the business. Collaboration is sometimes used to negotiate contracts. It is not used to decide where the group will have lunch.

Let’s take this a step further. Assume you now understand which style you tend to use naturally, and you understand the pitfalls of overusing that style. In other words, you recognize that you probably need to employ other styles from time to time, depending on the situation. Have you realized yet that if you achieve this level of understanding, you will be able to recognize what other people are doing in regards to conflicted situations?

Some of it is pretty obvious. If John leaves most meetings tight-lipped, head down, stalking off to his office where he closes the door a little too firmly, you are probably seeing avoidance. If Elizabeth never has an opinion, always says she will do whatever you want, you are probably seeing a master accommodator in action. If, on the other hand, Donna wants lengthy discussion on every situation, no matter how insignificant, you may be seeing someone overusing collaboration.

It may make sense for you to ask your entire work group take the Thomas-Killman instrument and discuss the outcomes in a group. Sometimes this works well, but it can backfire if you don’t have someone facilitate this meeting skillfully. At the least, the facilitator should help the group develop some ground rules up front. These should include a willingness to discuss the results, a “no sniping” requirement, and perhaps time limits on individual contributions to the discussion. The facilitator should also elicit a purpose statement of some kind from the group. This should be something along the lines of “to make our work together more productive.”

Finally, the facilitator should be conversant enough with the 5 styles to explain what the uses and overuses of each looks like. Each person will be identified more with one or two styles than another once the instruments are complete. The facilitator needs to stress that even though each of us has a preferred style, each of us is capable of using any style when necessary.

In conclusion, conflict in the workplace is inevitable today considering the pace of change and the competing needs for time and resources. But being sidetracked by conflict is optional. Instead of allowing conflict to negatively impact your work place, turn the tables and use the different strengths and styles around you to allow each person to provide his or her best contributions to the work at hand. Easy? Probably not. Necessary? Absolutely.

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