Though conflict is a normal and natural part of any workplace, it can lead to absenteeism, lost productivity, and mental health issues. At the same time, conflict can be a motivator that generates new ideas and innovation as well as leads to increased flexibility and a better understanding of working relationships. However, conflict needs to be effectively managed in order to contribute to the success of organizations.
A critical competency for today’s working professionals is to understand that we each have our own way of dealing with conflict. According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), used by human resource (HR) professionals around the world, there are five major styles of conflict management—collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising.
“Each strategy has its own benefits; there is no right or wrong conflict management style,” says Dr. Barbara Benoliel, a certified professional mediator and mitigation specialist and faculty member for the PhD in Human and Social Services program at Walden University. “Understanding how you instinctively respond to conflicts as well as having increased awareness of other management styles may help how you typically approach specific situations and lead to efficient and effective conflict resolution.”
Five Major Conflict Management Styles*
Knowing when and how to use each style can help control conflict and lead to an improved working environment, resulting in a better bottom line.
Collaborating Style: A combination of being assertive and cooperative, those who collaborate attempt to work with others to identify a solution that fully satisfies everyone’s concerns. In this style, which is the opposite of avoiding, both sides can get what they want and negative feelings are minimized. “Collaborating works best when the long-term relationship and outcome are important—for example, planning for integrating two departments into one, where you want the best of both in the newly formed department,” Dr. Benoliel says.
Competing Style: Those who compete are assertive and uncooperative and willing to pursue one’s own concerns at another person’s expense. Dr. Benoliel explains using this style works when you don’t care about the relationship but the outcome is important, such as when competing with another company for a new client. But, she cautions, “Don’t use competing inside your organization; it doesn’t build relationships.”
Avoiding Style: Those who avoid conflict tend to be unassertive and uncooperative while diplomatically sidestepping an issue or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation. “Use this when it is safer to postpone dealing with the situation or you don’t have as great a concern about the outcome, such as if you have a conflict with a co-worker about their ethics of using FaceTime on the job.”
Accommodating Style: The opposite of competing, there is an element of self-sacrifice when accommodating to satisfy the other person. While it may seem generous, it could take advantage of the weak and cause resentment. “You can use accommodating when you really don’t care a lot about the outcome but do want to preserve or build the relationship,” Dr. Benoliel says, “such as going out for lunch with the boss and agreeing, ‘If you want to go for Thai food for lunch, that’s OK with me.’”
Compromising Style: This style aims to find an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties in the conflict while maintaining some assertiveness and cooperativeness. “This style is best to use when the outcome is not crucial and you are losing time; for example, when you want to just make a decision and move on to more important things and are willing to give a little to get the decision made,” Dr. Benoliel says. “However,” she adds, “be aware that no one is really satisfied.”
“It’s incredibly important to not be afraid when conflict arises because there are things you can do, such as becoming more skilled and qualified by building a repertoire for responding to reduce conflict,” says Dr. Benoliel.