Conflict is inevitable in any environment but it is prevalent in the workplace. According to Dana (2001) in his book, Conflict resolution, workplace conflict is "a condition between or among workers whose jobs are interdependent, who feel angry, who perceive the other(s) as being at fault, and who act in ways that cause a business problem" (emphasis added, p. 5).
How we react in conflict will affect how quickly a resolution can be made. To determine how you react to conflict, we often use conflict styles as a way to set the stage for dealing in conflicts. The idea of measuring your conflict style goes back decades to Thomas and Kilmann’s original (1974) Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument; it is also the one I use in my conflict management consultancy. Others include The Kraybill Conflict Style Inventory (Directing, Cooperating, Avoiding, Harmonizing, and Compromising) and Rahim and Magner’s Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory (Dominating, Avoiding, Obliging, Integrating, and Compromising).
Most conflict experts agree that the there are five conflict styles (#ConflictStyle) and I would like to discuss the “industry standard”, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, and its Avoiding, Accommodating, Competing, Compromising, and Collaborating. The scale is built around the degree to which the person has concern for self and concern for others. A brief scenario will help to understand how the same two people can use different conflict style in the same situation.
Bob owns a small garage that specializes in foreign car repair and he has one other mechanic, Sam, and either one is at the front counter to greet customers and to record what they want repaired. Susan, a long-time customer, comes into the shop in a panic as her car keeps stalling when it is idling and she needs the car for a business-related road trip. Sam indicates that they can have it done by the end of the day and that it should cost about 300.00 to repair the car. Susan leaves and says that she will return at the end of the day. When she returns, Sam has gone home so Bob presents Susan with a bill for 650.00 since they also changed her oil, replaced her air filter, and needed extra parts and more time to fix the problem with the engine. Susan is not pleased.
A person who uses an Avoiding conflict style has a low focus on his/her own agenda and on relationships. The person just turns away from any conflict in the workplace and chooses to exhibit behaviour that ranges from outright belligerence to appearing to acquiesce to forestall a resolution. The resulting scenario tends to be "I lose/you lose" and leaves everyone feeling unfulfilled. Sub-types include protecting (i.e., self-preservation so the person goes out of their way to not confront the conflict), withdrawing (i.e., getting out of the way so that they do not have to address the conflict), and smoothing (i.e., showing similarities between this situation and others but not dealing with the present conflict).
If Bob adopted an Avoiding conflict style when Susan starts yelling at him that she never authorized any other repairs, he would point out that many other customers, including Susan in the past, appreciate it when they ensure that the car is up to date on its repairs; he would be using smoothing to show the commonalities with other customers and is not really addressing the sensitive nature of the charges. The effect of this style on Susan could be to intensify the conflict so that Susan might feel like she is not being heard and she might not want to continue their relationship.
A person who favours an Accommodating style wants to satisfy all parties involved directly in the conflict as much as possible and has a low focus on his/her own agenda and on a high focus on maintaining a good relationship. In other words, this person is trying to attain a "I lose/you win" scenario. Sub-types in this style include yielding (i.e., giving into the other person without presenting their own view) and conceding (i.e., giving in but they state their own view first).
If Susan had an Accommodating style, she might indicate that she is surprised by the larger bill for the repairs but really appreciates the care that they took to ensure that she is safe. She might also point out that she would need to know, in the future, that any additional repairs needed should be run past her so that she is fully aware of the costs and can advise; or conceding. The effect of this style on Bob or Sam could be that they see her view as weak and they could take advantage of her next time and the effect on Susan could be that she is really angry and disappointed that they did not apologize or agree to phone next time.
A person exhibiting a Competing style chooses to follow his or her own agenda rather than worrying about having a good relationship with the other person(s). This adversarial style results in a "I win/you lose" scenario and can lead to months, years, or decades of resentment from others. Subtypes can include forcing (i.e., using power, usually aggressively, over others) or contending (i.e., displaying a slight bending in your view).
If Bob had a Competing style, he would let Susan know that many of his customers do not ever complain when he puts their safety first and he could remind her that he had done the same thing two years ago and she sent him a thank-you card. He might agree to reduce the bill by 10% so that she feels like she has been heard (i.e., contending) but not without letting her know that he has a business to run so he can not do any better. The overall effect of this style on Susan could be that she might be less willing to speak up next time and may feel that her voice might not be welcome.
A person reflecting a Compromising style will have a medium focus on his/her own agenda and a medium focus on relationship with the parties involved. As the term implies, the resulting scenario with this style is a "I win some/you win some" as the resolution is usually to split the difference so both parties are satisfied and flexible. There need not be a high degree of trust between the parties and the conflict is usually of moderate importance.
If Susan had a Compromising style, she might be reasonable in her expectations of the resulting bill since she knew that she needed a standard tune up and was meaning to get it done soon whether here or elsewhere. Since she and Bob are not really close given their relationship is based on her being a customer and his being a mechanic (i.e., business transaction), she is not overly concerned with the bill since Bob agreed to a 10% reduction for the lack of communication. The overall effect of this style on Bob could be that he understands that Susan can be a “difficult customer” so he will ensure that all expenses on her car are run past him when done by Sam but he might also feel embittered as he felt that he and Susan had a good relationship prior to today.
A person adopting a Collaborating style has a high focus on their agenda but also a high focus on relationship with the parties involved. This person will work towards a "I win/you win" scenario to ensure flexibility and keeping the peace. The relationship is built on a high degree of past earned trust and an expectation that the trust will continue past the present conflict with a clear focus on generating high-quality and well thought out solutions that meet the needs and interests of both parties.
If Bob had a Collaborating style, he would invite Susan to go over the bill with him and he would show where he could make some changes and expect that she would also give some ideas of where she felt the costs were valid and that she would have no problem paying those costs. Bob and Susan would want the arrangement to continue since she needs a good mechanic and he needs repeat business given how small his shop is. The overall effect of this style on Susan could be that she might be realize that their positive relationship is more important to both of them than a few hundred dollars or she might believe that the trust between them has been tarnished and that she might have to ensure she has a contingency plan next time.
Should you be interested in learning more about your own or others' conflict styles, the first step is meeting with you and/or your organization to conduct an assessment of the conflict styles present. We can meet face to face, online, or a combination of the two. I will then work with you and others to assist you in coming to a resolution for now and give you skills for the future.
Dana, D. (2001). Conflict resolution. McGraw-Hill.
Jones, T. S. & Brinkert, R. (2008). Conflict coaching: Conflict management strategies and skills for the individual. Sage.