Inter-personal or group conflict is an inevitable consequence of people working together in teams. In fact, conflict can be a good thing, as it is a sign that people care and are passionate, and, if those energies are channelled correctly, they can be a great source of diverse ideas and solutions.
Too often however, conflict results in negative and damaging outcomes. It can hurt morale, suppress individual effectiveness, and, ultimately, destroy team productivity. Left untreated, it results in a downward spiral of negativity, emotions and blame.
A helpful starting point is to understand some of the theory, and to recognise that people have different (and preferred) styles of dealing with conflict. There is no one style that will work best in every situation, but once you have an understanding of the different styles, you have the opportunity to step back and think about the most appropriate approach (or perhaps mix of approaches) that will suit the current situation. And, having a raised awareness of your own ‘natural’ style is a good first step to helping you learn and adapt when necessary, so that it does not remain your only style. (For a deeper treatment of this area, see the work of Ralph H. Kilmann and Kenneth W. Thomas)
The list of styles identified through their work are:
- Avoiding – Acting in a way that does not address the conflict directly. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be a viable style to adopt when the issue and the relationship are of very low importance, but it should be used with extreme caution. Avoiding a serious issue may make the conflict intensify, possibly damaging relationships further.
- Accommodating – Involves accepting the other party’s position or interest at the expense of your own. People who naturally adopt this style are not assertive but highly cooperative. It may be appropriate when the issue matters more to the other party and when peace is more valuable than winning. It can, however, be counter-productive as you may be seen as weak, especially if used repeatedly. Furthermore, constant ‘accommodating’ may lead to increased stress.
- Competing – Working to have your position or interests take priority over those of the other party. People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want, usually operating from a position of power (whether position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability). It can be useful in an emergency when a decision needs to be made fast; or when defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation selfishly. However it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations. It is also not a useful style when it is important to generate diverse ideas or multiple solutions.
- Compromising – Involves each party giving and getting a little in terms of position and interests. People adopting a compromising style seek solutions that will to some extent satisfy everyone. This approach depends on everyone being prepared to give up something. It can be useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground, when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. It is unlikely to work successfully for issues of principle and may cut off opportunities for collaborative problem solving.
- Collaborating – Parties attempt to meet all or most of the interests underlying their respective positions. Collaborators can be highly assertive, but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s input is important. This is the most useful style when it is important to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group; or when the situation is too critical for a simple trade-off. It is most effective for generating ‘high-quality solutions’ but requires a very high level of trust between parties, and relies on the use of considerable interpersonal skills (e.g. it is vital to confront issues directly without threatening the other party). For some situations it may not be appropriate due to the fact that it can take considerable time and effort to implement.
‘True’ Collaboration is an often misunderstood and overused term. It has been fashionable for companies to place ‘collaboration’ at the centre of their ‘desired’ culture and as one of their ‘highest-prized’ employee values, but it often becomes watered down to mean little more than ‘teamwork’ or ‘co-operation’.
But ‘true’ collaboration is rarely observed in corporate and public service cultures, in my experience. It demands a high level of awareness and skill of managing conflict styles by all parties, it takes hard work and patience, a recognition of where effort is required, and it calls for a high level of openness and honesty. When embraced, however, and ‘true’ collaboration is encouraged, practised and role-modelled throughout the organisation, people learn, develop and grow resulting in more engaged, effective and productive teams.
I dealt with this point to some extent in last week’s post on this site (“What gets in your way and blows the conversation?”) and I will develop these ideas further in future posts.
Until then, I leave you with two key pointers to help overcome common de-railers that either cause, or result from, conflict situations.
- Does everyone agree on what the problem actually is? Perhaps surprisingly, this is one of the most fundamental of mistakes from which conflict situations emerge. How often have you experienced people walking out of a meeting, having nodded their way through that meeting, appearing to agree on what the problem is and what needs to be done about it, only to go off in several different directions solving different problems? (possibly too much avoiding or accommodating going on here)
- Are you discussing the issue or are you engaging on an emotional level? When you analyse conversations between two people, or across a meeting room table, are you hearing constructive contributions, building on each other’s comments, challenging and agreeing in turn, with evidence, rationale and respect? Or are the exchanges happening in reaction to the other person’s stance, style or ‘past’? Has rationale disappeared from the discussion, to be replaced by assertions, dogma and ‘principles’. (perhaps as a result of too much competing)
It is so important to keep people and problems separate, so that real issues can be discussed without damaging working relationships.
To learn more about how you can become expert in this area, how you can build skill for you and your team, and how you can transform your working environment to one built on constructive conversations, please do get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be delighted to discuss further with you.
Another very interesting post. I like the analysis of the different styles for dealing with conflict which seem very common sense on the surface but have significant implications in practice, as in the examples you give.
The difference between true collaboration and co-operation is an useful distinction. The underlying assumption is I presume that the outcomes from collaboration are likely to be richer and more effective than those that derive from simple co-operationi.
Thank you Richard for your kind comments. I am glad you enjoyed. Your conclusion as to the distinction between ‘true’ collaboration and co-operation is spot on – i.e. richness, depth and quality of outcomes. Co-operation is of course great – but it is possible for people to co-operate at a superficial level, or to do so while adopting other styles (e.g. accommodating or compromising). In my view, true collaboration sweeps aside all barriers, allowing people to engage with authenticity, trust, respect, and a level of openness and honesty that is unlikely to ever be allowed to surface while other styles are being adopted.
Aren’t we falling into the trap here of seeing collaboration as being an alternative to conflict?
I am not sure that is helpful if so.
Within collaborations we will still have a great deal of conflict and disagreement. This is where both the challenge and value of collaboration lies. Effective collaboration provides a framework in which conflict and dissenting voices can be explored and better understood. Out of that can come new thoughts, products and outcomes that had previously not been imagined.
The skill in collaboration is, I believe, one of being able to tolerate the conflict, to step into those conflicted areas and, instead of knocking down one another’s arguments, to explore them with curiosity and respect.
If I was to redraw the cycle diagram above I may well draw it with “Competent conflict” at 12 o’clock leading to “Collaboration” at six, leading back up to the “Competent conflict” position. The creativity is the product that emerges from this cycle. I would place that in the middle.
Just my tuppence worth tossed in in a hopefully collaborative fashion.
Hi Neil. Thanks for your comment and for joining the discussion. It certainly wasn’t my intention to portray collaboration as some sort of ‘alternative’ to conflict, and I apologise if that wasn’t clear. Rather, I am putting collaboration forward as a strategy or style that can be adopted and used to manage conflict, overcome conflict or perhaps avoid conflict. I agree with you that, within a collaborative environment, conflict will still arise. However, I would argue that a truly collaborative team of individuals will be better prepared to deal with and handle that conflict in such a way that out of it will emerge creativity and constructive progress. This does rely, as you suggest, on trust, authenticity and respect between everyone to make it work of course. I appreciate your ‘collaborative’ contribution. Keep them coming, and please do respond if I have not addressed your points correctly.
A great article and a really useful model!
I agree that team work (especially around the boardroom table!) can be a messy place when those in the team have not come together to understand how they can constructively use their differences as enablers rather than disablers.
This just goes to show that it doesn’t matter how high you make it in a company you have to go through the process if coming to understand yourself and learning to work with others. This is not an overnight thing, nor is it easy – it takes time and requires constant attention.
But it is worth it and why collaboration helps species get a competitive advantage – it allows groups to be more than the sum of their individual parts. The same applies in businesses.
Louis – we have a similar discussion going on our Linkedin Group. Come and join us (see link from Welcome page on Website). Your experience and insights in this and other areas would add great value to Group.
Thanks for another great link!
Thank you Craig for your reply. That is a great invite. I will check that link out on Linkedin, and perhaps we will connect on there. Much appreciated.
This is turning into a great post and comments section. I love the idea of the boardroom table being a messy place. This speaks to me of the kind of complexity that we ought to expect and be prepared for.
In retrospect I think this is what I was getting at within my original comment above. Collaboration can be bandied around rather glibly and without real meaning as you point out Louis. In reality though collaboration presents us all with very real challenges.
That process, Craig, of understanding yourself and some of your obstructive default behaviours is a fascinating and difficult one. What is more, in my experience, is that having gone through it once we have to keep on going through it again and again.
The relapses are killers.
Just the other day, I was having a difficult conversation. They said “I don’t want this to come across as me attacking you.”
“No, it doesn’t” I replied in a too well rehearsed fashion. But I still had some distance to go. My inner voice chirped up: “Say it like you mean it. Get curious. And what if this really isn’t an attack?”
At that moment I was able to become much more inquisitive and the conversation flowed into some novel and fascinating areas.
So, I agree entirely, self-understanding and recognition are so important.
Thanks again for the conversation.
Agreed Neil, I love this level of interchange, it’s so refreshing. You are spot on about relapses. No-one can ever say they have got this stuff sussed. It takes hard work and constant reminders to oneself, as you indicate. I love the whole ‘hidden’ meaning of our language when in conversation, and what that does to our emotional state. I did another post recently that touched on this area (see https://gyroconsulting.com/2012/05/04/whats-your-biggest-conversation-de-railer/#more-570). You may be familiar with the work of Chris Arygris, but if not, I would recommend him. He describes something called Model 1 behaviours that manifest themselves in strategies such as “over-advocating”, “piling”, “easing in” and in “leading questions”. Leading questions are tremendously revealing. Once you make yourself aware of them, you hear them everywhere. People typically start questions by saying things like, “Don’t you think that….?”, or “Wouldn’t it be better if…”, or “Why don’t you….”. In other words, forms of questions that are not actually questions at all, but merely structures of sentences that conceal (or reveal ?) the person’s own point of view, and are designed to ‘lead’ the other person to the conclusion that the questioner already holds. The trouble is they are really risky, in that they reveal the other person’s intent, they raise the emotional stakes in conversations, and rarely result in a constructive conversation ensuing. A very rich area of discussion this, and maybe one to be pursued further in discussion or in future posts. Thanks again for your valuable contribution.
I really appreciate this analysis of dealing with conflict, in many you touched the key aspects. I look forward to more…
Thanks Trevor. I’m glad you enjoyed and took the time to reply. Do keep checking in and contributing, it is very much appreciated.
Great thoughts! Awesome post! Thank you for posting Kilmann and Thomas’ model.
I believe the goal is to always strive for true collaboration. In the rest of the options, someone either seems to lose out or take over. While true collaboration may take a lot of invested time, it does engage everyone -and isn’t this what companies are crying out to improve? Maybe we don’t need collaboration for simple, routine things like “PizzaFriday” lunches, but we would definitely want true collaboration if the team were in charge of an annual wine and cheese for clients.
Thanks Stacey. Love your comments. PizzaFridays sound fun!! I think you are right – collaboration and full engagement is what companies are crying out for – I just don’t think a lot of them get it fully, and how much hard work it takes to achieve it. It is definitely not a ‘soft’ option.