Conflict at work is inevitable and you could argue that a workplace that encourages dissent allows employees to show up more authentically, as well as spurs innovation, diversity of thought and better decision-making.
The problem, however, arises when the conflict isn’t managed well, or worse still it’s completely ignored, which can lead to loss of productivity, absenteeism, and in extreme cases — employees quitting.
In a global and diverse work environment such as Singapore’s, sometimes the heart of the problem is that people differ from each other in age, gender, ethnicity or personality type, leading to conflicting perspectives. Organisational psychiatrist Marcia Reynolds, witnessed this in an activity where she blindfolded leaders at a global company and asked them to describe the puzzle piece in their hands. Their responses couldn’t be more different and what they didn’t know was that each of them was holding the same piece! Proving the point that different cultures often mean very different perspectives.
While it is all employees’ responsibility to create a harmonious work environment, the managers and Human Resources (HR) department, who are the captains of the ship, must be well-versed in steering stormy weathers.
An interesting and effective tool in this regard, is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) used by HR professionals around the world, which delves into 5 different conflict management strategies: collaborating, competing, avoiding, accommodating, and compromising.
Let’s take a look at the 5 strategies to understand when to use it or lose it.
This is the ‘my way or the highway’ approach. Competing is a highly assertive and uncooperative stance that sits at the top left corner of the quadrant.
Use it: When you don’t care about the relationship but the outcome is important, such as when competing with another company for a new client. Or when dealing with an emergency, such as a calamity where people absolutely must leave the office premises.
Lose it: When you’re in a position of power within an organisation and can bully or dominate another party into submission.
At the top right corner of the quadrant sits this approach which every manager would love to master. Collaborative but also assertive.
Use it: When the long-term relationship and outcome are important, such as the integration of two departments or companies. It’s a great way to find innovative solutions and gives everyone’s opinions, ideas and suggestions a fair chance.
Lose it: Never. It’s usually the best way forward… but not the easiest. Coming to a consensus can sometimes be quite challenging. However, patience and persistence pay.
Sitting right in the middle of the quadrant is the Compromising approach. As the word suggests, it gets the job done, but no one is really satisfied at the end of it.
Use it: When the outcome is not crucial, you’re losing time and need to make a decision so you can move on to more important matters. Be sure to focus on the benefits of the compromise so it’s easier for people to accept.
Lose it: Be aware. If a sense of dissatisfaction remains, it could cause problems for teams who have to work together in the long term.
The ostrich strategy of Avoiding, sits at the bottom left corner of the quadrant. It’s not only uncooperative but also unassertive. And common sense tells us, avoiding a problem won’t make it go away.
Use it: When it’s a trivial matter and the outcome doesn’t really concern you, such as a talented employee who sometimes shows up late for work. Or when dealing with a very heated situation, that could only get worse if you don’t step away from it.
Lose it: Think about the consequences. Avoiding a conflict can sometimes lead to even bigger conflicts and could backfire in a big way.
Accommodating sits at the bottom right-hand corner of the quadrant indicating a cooperative but unassertive approach. It’s most skillfully used by those who know when to pick their battles.
Use it: When the relationship matters more than the outcome. Such as excusing an employee from joining a lunch that includes a colleague they don’t like. Or when being accommodating has better results for the organisation as a whole.
Lose it: At first, it could make you appear as a manager who is easy to approach and cares about people, but it could equally make you seem like a pushover not to be taken seriously if used too often. Or that you don’t really value the other’s point of view enough to have a conversation about it.
Negotiating and keeping track of conflicts is hard but necessary work. It’s the key to creating a culture of trust, and a workplace more employees look forward to being a part of every day. And using the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict model is a great way to start.