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Conflict styles

How do you manage conflict in teams? Paddy Upton discusses some approaches in this video.
PADDY UPTON: In this step, I refer to Tuckman’s ‘Stages of team development’, discussed previously, and to begin to tease out the different styles of conflict management as they relate to Tuckman’s stages. In stage one, or the forming stage, there’s little in the way of outward conflict, as people put their best foot forward and keep their differences of opinion to themselves. Any potential conflict will potentially be suppressed or avoided. Advancing to stage two, or storming, teams tackle different situations and conversations, and address conflict that arises. This is generally a challenging time for people and teams, primarily because of the quite different ways people handle conflict.
Some naturally avoid it, either by keeping quiet, or by being overly accommodating of other people’s needs in order to keep the peace. Others are happy to be confrontational, where those who place a high value on their own opinions might find themselves fighting to have their view prevail, while some will have the energy of compromise, as they seek some give and take. And others still will have a mature mindset of collaboration, which sees people teaming up to find a win-win for all. If the team is overly avoiding or accommodating, they might never get out of stage one. If a team is overly competitive and there’s too much compromising, they might get stuck in stage two, as conflict never gets fully resolved.
Stage three and four are characterised by working together in the pursuit of solutions, using a collaborative, win-win approach to differences in ideas and opinion. Above, I briefly described five styles of navigating conflict based on the popular work of Thomas and Kilmann, which are – avoiding, – accommodating, – competing, – compromising, – and collaborating. Most people are capable of all five styles, but have definite preferences based on their personalities and their upbringing. Styles also change according to how much time is available, the importance of the issue, and how much value you place on the relationship with the person with whom you disagree. The easiest conflict to manage is where there’s lots of time and the issue is not that important.
Most challenging is when the issue is important, relationships are important, yet there’s little time available to resolve the issue. The five styles can be placed on a matrix, with value and relationship on the vertical axis, and importance of the issue on the horizontal. Avoiding is an unassertive and uncooperative approach, which neither helps the other person nor yourself. It might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation. The pros is that it keeps the temporary peace. It buys time and postpones difficulty.
It works when the issue is trivial, when you have no chance of winning, and when the issue would be very costly, or when the atmosphere is emotionally charged and you need to create some space. The cons are that it leaves problems unaddressed and unresolved. Avoiding conflict is not a long-term solution, as it causes frustration, which then leads to further conflict. Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative, the opposite of competing, where you neglect your own needs to satisfy the other person. It might take the form of selfless generosity or charity. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy. Obeying another person’s order when you’d prefer not to, or yielding to another person’s point of view.
The pros is that it minimises damage when you’re outmatched, when the other party is the expert or has a better solution, and when it’s important to preserve the relationship with the other party. The cons, especially if done too often, is that it breeds resentment, exploits the weak, and causes both a loss of self-respect, as well as others losing respect for the person who’s overly accommodating. Competing is assertive and uncooperative, employing an authoritarian win-lose approach, where you pursue your own needs at the other person’s expense. It is a power-oriented mode, in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win. Whether it’s your ability to argue, or your position of power, or rank, authority.
Competing means standing up for your rights, defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win. The pros are that it’s very goal-oriented and can lead to quick solutions. It may be appropriate for emergencies and when time is of the essence, or when you need a quick decisive action, and people are aware of and support the approach. The cons, particularly if done frequently, is that it breeds hostility and resentment, and it undermines relationships. The winner might think they wield the power, but in fact, they lose respect, and thus lose real power. If both parties remain in competing mode, it can lead to a stalemate, with no solution, no end, and a lack of respect for each other.
Compromising is the lose-lose scenario, where the aim is to find a quick, mutually-acceptable solution, which partly satisfies both parties, with neither getting what they really want. Differences are split, with each party making concessions. If you do this, I’ll do that. Pros are that it’s useful in complex issues where there is no simple solution, and where all parties are granted equal power. Cons are that no one is ever really satisfied, and less than optimal solutions get implemented. It can lead to people keeping scores and using them as a bargaining tool in the future. Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative, and is the opposite of avoiding.
It’s a pairing up with the other party to find the optimal solution, which fully satisfies both people’s concerns or goals. It is an us-versus-the-problem approach, rather than a you-versus-me, seeking a win-win situation where both sides get what they want and negative feelings are minimised. The question is, what is right? Not, who will win? It might well require reframing the problem to create room for a larger solution that includes everyone’s ideas. The pros are that it’s effective for complex scenarios that require novel solutions. It creates mutual trust, maintains positive relationships, and builds commitments.
It’s also a strong indicator of the team being in the norming and even performing stage, where individuals have placed the team and its larger goals ahead of their own ego and agendas. The cons are that it requires a lot of time to consider all options and to reach consensus, and it can be energy-consuming. Collaborating generally cannot happen without a high degree of trust and maturity. As with much of the course, self awareness of your preferences is key to working with teams, specifically so that you can set aside your preferences to provide that which the team needs in each situation.
I suggest knowing your default conflict style or styles and those which you might need to develop, so that you have the full range of options available as each situation might require.

When it comes to conflict you might avoid or accommodate it, compete or collaborate, or simply compromise.

How you manage conflict within the team may depend on the stage of team development the team is in.

The five styles of dealing with conflict can be placed on a matrix:

Your task

Identify which of the styles are most natural to you and which are the least. Share some of the ways it’s helpful to know this about yourself. What steps can you take to further improve the way you navigate conflict situations?


Kilmann, R., & Thomas, K. (1977). Developing a forced-choice measure of conflict-handling behaviour: The “mode” instrument. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 37(2), 309-325.
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