If you run a company or manage a team, running into conflict from time to time is inevitable, whether it’s colleagues disagreeing on working methods, or customers who come to you with a complaint.
However, conflict doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, provided it’s managed in the right way. If you think about it, nothing would ever change if we didn’t have conflict, and all the improvements we make in society only happen because someone decided the status quo wasn’t good enough.
Recently, I was introduced to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, which measures people’s behaviour in conflict situations by assessing their cooperativeness (on the x-axis) and assertiveness (on the y-axis). The model groups people into five categories, which on the example I saw were depicted by an animal:
• Avoiders (depicted by a tortoise) – with low assertiveness and low cooperativeness
• Accommodators (depicted by a teddy bear) – with low assertiveness and high cooperativeness
• Competitors (depicted by a shark) – with high assertiveness and low cooperativeness
• Collaborators (depicted by an owl) – with high assertiveness and high cooperativeness
• Compromisers (depicted by a fox) – with medium assertiveness and cooperativeness
Many people instantly assume it’s best to strive to be a compromiser who is bang in the middle of this graph, but as we’ve discussed, compromising can be a barrier to necessary change. If all conflict results in a compromise, it can lead to people who are in the wrong getting the upper hand.
In most cases, the most effective conflict manager is the collaborator. This person is willing to listen to everyone and cooperate throughout the dispute, but is also assertive enough to put necessary change into effect even if it might not be popular.
That’s not to say that there aren’t occasions where a different approach to conflict can’t be useful. I was not terribly surprised that I was found to be a “teddy bear” in this study – someone who is cooperative but lacks assertiveness. These people can be valuable in difficult situations, such as when dealing with people who are struggling and need an arm around the shoulder rather than a kick up the backside, and accommodators are often well suited to counselling and work in mental health. However, as a team leader, I would like to improve my assertiveness and become more of a collaborator.
Similarly, the competitive sharks’ mentality might come in useful when trying to win contracts. Salespeople often have a selfish streak that is a healthy attribute when trying to improve their figures, sometimes motivating themselves by competing against their colleagues. Even the avoider has the right idea in some situations, such as high-pressure conflicts where a calming and stand-offish approach is called for.
Following my introduction to this model, I took part in a group problem-solving task with five or six other people. The task was the sort of problem I’m fairly good at solving, and I found myself turning into something of a “shark” during it, at times talking over other people. Luckily, I was right with my assertions, and we are ultimately judged on results, but it would only have taken for me to make a mistake and my approach would have looked awful.
Interestingly, another member of the group didn’t say a word throughout the task. She admitted afterwards that she simply didn’t understand the puzzle and felt others were more comfortable with it than her. In her case, playing the “tortoise” role made perfect sense, and in a different task where I felt I had nothing useful to contribute, I would probably have done the same.
I learned that while conflict is rarely something to be relished, it should be embraced and seen as a positive when it occurs, and that it’s not always the best solution to find an outcome that makes everybody happy.