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Managing Conflict in the Workplace

No organization is free from conflict. After all, conflict usually arises when passionate people disagree about an idea or solution, and great organizations are FULL of passionate people who believe in their ideas and mission.

Unfortunately, however, it’s all too common for individuals to make assumptions about someone else’s intentions or ideas behind that passion. These assumptions lead to destructive conflict where people trade conclusions about each other back and forth based on those incorrect assumptions.

Workplace conflict usually comes in two forms:

  1. People Conflict - when two (or more!) people disagree with each other, making it personal instead of about the work

  2. Task Conflict - focused on the task at hand, group members disagree about group goals and tasks being performed

Once we accept that conflict is inevitable, we can identify the types of conflict we see and begin working toward resolving that conflict in a healthy, productive way.

Responding to Conflict

According to the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument, all people approach conflict with varying degrees of two behaviors:

  1. Assertiveness- the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy their own concerns

  2. Cooperativeness - the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns

Depending on the level of each of these behaviors, a person’s conflict style can be determined.

The Five Styles

The five different styles of responding to conflict are:

  1. Competing- Assertive and uncooperative, this mode is power-oriented in which a person uses whatever power they have to win their position.

  2. Collaborating- Assertive and cooperative, this mode involves an attempt to work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies their concerns.

  3. Compromising- Moderately assertive and cooperative, this mode involves finding a solution that is mutually acceptable to both parties.

  4. Avoiding- Unassertive and uncooperative, this mode involves sidestepping an issue completely. Individuals do not pursue their own concerns nor those of the other individual.

  5. Accommodating- Unassertive and cooperative, this mode involves the individual completely neglecting their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of others.

Identifying + Understanding Conflict Styles

Think back to a time when you experienced conflict in the workplace? How did you handle it? What’s your conflict style?

If you’re having difficulty identifying one single conflict style for yourself, you’re not alone! All people are capable of approaching conflict in any of the ways above. However, most people tend to rely on some styles more than others. Are you usually more assertive in your approach to conflict resolution? Do you tend to lean toward cooperative resolution? Do you do your best to avoid conflict altogether?

Understanding how we approach conflict is important because once we are aware of our tendencies, we can begin to make adjustments to our behavior so that workplace conflicts can be resolved quickly and cooperatively.

Shifting Mindsets

As we mentioned before, organizations are FULL of passionate people who strongly believe in their ideas and mission. And it’s inevitable that passionate people with differing ideas will encounter conflict. Therefore, we need to shift our mindset about conflict.

Instead of thinking “Conflict is avoidable”, we need to accept that “Conflict is inevitable”

Instead of thinking “Conflict is destructive”, we need to understand that “Task conflict leads to team learning”

Instead of pointing fingers or placing blame, we need to identify each person’s contribution to the situation and identify how to move forward.

Instead of making assumptions about someone’s ideas or motives behind their passion, we need to work to maximize understanding.

Resolving Conflict in Your Workplace

A company culture that supports and promotes open, productive communication is necessary in order for conflict resolution to take place in an efficient and informative manner. This allows for honest conversations that help employees grow as individuals and teams, understand each other and themselves better, and learn about their own behaviors as they contribute to workplace conflict and resolution.

Once we understand how workplace conflict arises and identify our ways of approaching conflict, we can begin to make adjustments to our behavior and interactions so that workplace conflicts can be resolved quickly and effectively.

Interested in learning more about how to understand conflict and shift mindsets in your organization? Contact Cause Capacity today to learn more about our Team Development Services.


Source: The information for this post is based on the framework and research from the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument


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