30-Second Summary:

  • Workplace conflict is inevitable. Learning how to manage conflict is critical for a productive work environment.

  • Successful conflict resolution can improve respect and communication among staff and lead to better decision-making.

  • The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) is the conflict management strategy of choice for many HR professionals.

  • The five TKI conflict-handling styles are avoiding, competing, compromising, accommodating, and collaborating.

With so many different personality types, backgrounds, and opinions in the workplace, it’s no surprise sometimes lively (some may call them heated) discussions ensue. Different viewpoints bring different perspectives and can lead to productive discussions and creative solutions for important issues. However, when these differing points of view result in conflict, the resulting tension can lead to anxiety and discontent among employees and/or customers.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

Managing conflict well keeps work environments safe and productive. Although not all experts agree on the best approach for conflict resolution, the signature method used most often by HR professionals and business managers is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI), named for the authors of the tool, Dr. Kenneth W. Thomas and Dr. Ralph H. Kilmann, looks at a person’s behavior as it relates to their assertiveness and cooperativeness in conflict situations. The pair identified five different styles of handling conflict: avoiding, competing, compromising, accommodating, and collaborating.

Conflict Management Styles

No style is right or wrong, but knowing when and how to use the different styles is key to maintaining peace and harmony in the workplace.

Competing

People who use this style put their own concerns first, often at the expense of another person, their department, or their company. Competing for a new account against another company is an example where this style is beneficial, but competing with one’s own team members is sure to weaken relationships and hurt morale. When using the competing style, a person is both assertive and uncooperative.

Accommodating

A person using an accommodating style neglects their own needs and yields to another’s point of view. This is the opposite of competing, and while it can appear as giving in, the approach is useful when the outcome is low risk and preserving the relationship is more important than being right. If used too often, a person with an accommodating style may be seen as a martyr, which can result in feelings of resentment and regret. An accommodating style can be very useful when setting meeting times, locations, and, even, lunch dates. An accommodating person is generally unassertive and cooperative.

Avoiding

An individual who uses an avoiding conflict management style is unassertive and uncooperative. These employees are often seen as being diplomatic by sidestepping an issue or withdrawing to prevent a potentially threatening situation. This is an effective technique for postponing decisions, but managers must be careful to ensure it doesn’t lead others to interpret it as a lack of concern. Managers may say “let’s shelve this topic” as an avoidance technique to restore calm during a particularly polarizing discussion.

Collaborating

The collaborating conflict management style is assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. Working collaboratively, instead of individually, is a goal for many organizations. When collaborating, co-workers work toward finding a solution that both parties need and that satisfies their concerns. Ultimately, both sides get what they want, and it can help forge strong long-term relationships. The downside of a collaborating style is that it takes intense focus and can be time-consuming and draining.

Compromising

A compromising style is the most useful style if the goal is to arrive at a quick solution or make a quick decision. When compromising occurs, it usually means that each party gives a little and they find a common or middle ground. The outcome is a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. One downside to compromising is that, by focusing on being fair and equitable, and quick, creativity can be limited. Compromising is moderate in assertiveness and cooperativeness.

Conclusion

Managers who focus on developing their conflict management skills often have satisfied employees and high-functioning teams. While conflict is bound to happen now and again, understanding the different types of conflict styles and how to use conflict to your benefit can be a win-win for employees and the company.

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