5 conflict management styles and when to use them

managing-conflict-450x350px-1People do not always agree. This simple statement holds true in all types of environments, including workplaces. But since decisions need to be made, involved parties must find ways to resolve conflicts. They also must keep in mind that how matters get settled impacts relationships.

Individuals often handle conflict resolution in ways consistent with their personalities and past experiences. Some may “give in” frequently, while others hold firm. Some may hash things out until an agreement pleases everyone, or they may view negotiation as each side “winning” what matters most to them and conceding lesser points.

Reverting to one’s default style of conflict management, however, does not always produce the best solution. Rather, it pays to examine the specific situation and people involved and think about whether a different conflict management style might yield better outcomes.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) is a self-report questionnaire that measures how one deals with interpersonal conflict. It explores the two basic dimensions of conflict behavior — assertiveness and cooperativeness. (Assertiveness is the degree to which you try to satisfy your own needs. Cooperativeness is the amount of openness to the other side’s ideas or degree of concern for their satisfaction.) It then applies them to five combinations possible in a conflict situation.

Organizations sometimes give employees (especially managers) the Thomas-Kilmann assessment. It paints a better picture of individual conflict management tendencies and makes people aware of alternate conflict management skills. Anyone, however, can benefit from understanding the five different conflict management styles and the pros and cons of each. Let’s take a look.

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1. Accommodating conflict management style (unassertive and cooperative)

As the name suggests, an accommodating style involves a willingness to please other people. Your own concerns or preferences take a back seat.

Accommodating may be a good choice when you do not particularly care that much about the issue at hand or the matter is small and not worth the fight. Letting someone who has a greater interest “win” makes him happy. You strengthen the relationship by coming off as pleasant and easygoing. Also, yielding to the wishes of others can be a nice way of apologizing for hurting feelings in a previous conflict.

Picking your battles is often a smart move. Likewise, when speed is of the essence, simply allowing others to get their way resolves matters quickly. You can move on to more important matters. Sometimes, you may choose to accommodate when deadlocked because the other person has more experience. And in workplace conflicts where your “defeat” seems inevitable, accommodating can come off as a more graceful way to end things than going down bitterly.

Accommodating too much, though, has potential downsides. Suppressing your own concerns on a regular basis leads to resentment, especially if colleagues exploit your tendency to concede. Motivation, too, may suffer if you feel unheard, “lesser” than fellow team members, or unexcited about decisions. For deeper issues, accommodating prevents reaching thoughtful conclusions that take into account various viewpoints.

Managers who overuse the accommodating style can gain a reputation as weak. They also run the risk of employees charging them with favoritism if they seem to always give in to certain staff members. On the flip side, managers who always expect their charges to accommodate them come off as stubborn and damage morale.

2. Competing conflict management style (assertive and uncooperative)

Trying to satisfy your own concerns at the other person’s expense is known as a competing style. It involves staying firm on your opinions or ideas rather than trying to hammer out an agreement through negotiation or compromise.

Such a conflict resolution style may sound harsh, but it merits consideration in some circumstances. Refusal to budge can be a sign of very firm belief. If, say, the other party is asking for something that compromises your values, holding your ground makes sense. Or, perhaps you base your angle on a problem from considerably more research or past experience than others involved. Agreeing with them might sacrifice the outcome and damage your professional credibility. And then there are cases where time is of the essence. A manager may demand an employee simply follow instructions rather than hold a debate.

The obvious danger of regularly employing a competing style of conflict management is hurting relationships. Never budging comes off as inconsiderate of others and too set in one’s own ways. When those involved have equal power (one cannot pull rank on the other), deadlock can result when each insists on maintaining a competing style of conflict management. Current outcomes suffer, and tension may spill over into future interactions.

Employees may label a manager with a consistent “my way or the highway” approach as unreasonable or too authoritarian. Morale suffers if workers feel they lack a voice, and good points may never get considered. When used as just one of many possible approaches, a competing style can show strength. For instance, an emergency or tough situation may require leaders to do what they feel best despite repercussions to relationships.

3. Avoiding conflict management style (unassertive and uncooperative)

When people think about conflict, they tend to focus on resolution. Sometimes, though, avoidance offers an effective, usually short-term, way to approach conflict.

Shelving an issue for the time being when things become too intense can make sense. Tackling at a future time when cooler heads prevail could prove more productive. Or, if conflict over small issues is taking up too much time, agreeing to resume those conversations at a later date allows moving forward on more pressing matters. Obviously, though, such delays are not always possible.

The importance of the issue and the feelings of those involved need consideration. Walking away from a conflict in the hope that it will somehow just resolve itself can set the stage for disaster. The other person may see you as uncaring or as unwilling to put in the effort needed to truly solve matters. Frustrations may brew and later explode. Providing the rationale for dropping the topic at the moment helps clear up misconceptions.

Avoidance sometimes involves removal from the situation. An employee could ask to partner with someone else rather than iron out differences with a colleague. Similarly, a leader might avoid assigning team members with a history of not getting along to the same project.

However, managers who rely too heavily on an avoiding style of conflict management may come off as incompetent. They open themselves to claims that they do not know how to solve problems, so they just keep moving people around or postponing decisions. But on the flipside, smart leaders know that when the avoidance method is employed properly it can be just what opposing parties need to reset.

4. Compromising conflict management style (somewhat assertive and somewhat cooperative)

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When a compromising style is used, neither side should expect to walk away totally happy or totally sad. Rather, parties work to find a solution that partially satisfies their individual concerns. Some experts refer to the compromising conflict management style as the lose-lose method. (Positive folks could make a case that it’s actually a bit of a win-win.)

A compromising style involves talking through matters and negotiating the end result. Oftentimes, this means stressing what you most want and letting go of what does not matter as much for the sake of resolution and maintaining positive relations. It forces prioritization to move things along.

Meeting one another halfway can be an effective way of reaching a temporary solution or one that’s “good enough.” But while the conclusion is fair, the issue may not truly be resolved. All people involved may feel frustrated. They may wonder if they conceded too much, or they question the quality of what was agreed upon. Leaving on civil terms, though, sets the stage for possibly revisiting the issue at a later time to make improvements.

Some employees view managers who favor the compromising method as peacemakers. They respect their concern for office harmony and all involved walking away with some satisfaction. Other workers charge these leaders as taking the easy way out by eking out an agreement rather than aiming for the “best” or “right” solution.

5. Collaborating conflict management style (assertive and cooperative)

A collaborating style aims to fully please all involved in the conflict. Finding a win-win solution involves a good deal of communicating and listening in order to reach an outcome that satisfies everyone.

Working together in this manner presents a variety of positives. Engagement tends to stay high because all have an interest in the outcome. Sharing a range of ideas and viewpoints often leads to creative solutions of higher quality than each individual’s initial position. Plus, collaboration strengthens relationships by demonstrating concern for others, working together, and establishing trust. For people with long-standing tensions with one another, collaboration encourages moving beyond past resentments to deal with core problems once and for all to forge a new relationship.

A major drawback of the collaborating conflict management style is the amount of energy it may take to produce an end product that pleases all. Situations requiring a quick decision do not lend themselves well to this time-consuming method. Also, the success of collaboration rests heavily on the attitude, emotional intelligence, and communication skills of participants. People who aren’t committed to a mutually satisfactory outcome, lack interpersonal skills, or don’t truly stay open to the viewpoints of others can make collaboration difficult.

Managers may favor a collaborating style of conflict management for important issues for which different sides have a vested interest in the outcome. Also, collaboration can be an effective way to approach complex or challenging situations. Employees coming into discussions from different perspectives bring an abundance of possibilities to the table. Merging these points of view can produce something better than anyone would have predicted.