Conflicts in the workplace are inevitable. To begin with, each person is different, and no two people will ever agree on everything. This is a good thing — creativity and synergy in a team is often borne from the ability to make the most of diversity! Second, the workplace can be a high pressure environment where anger, frustration, and disappointment can take hold. When deadlines are right around the corner, when profits are not coming in, when ideas are all sub-par, you can expect clashes with co-workers to rise. But more so, some issues are just by nature so complicated, that debate and discussion is the only way to go.
The best way to deal with conflicts is to manage them. In this article, you will be presented with the different styles of conflict management as enumerated by Thomas and Killman in 1972. The pros and cons of each conflict management style, as well as their impact on civility in the workplace will also be discussed.
As the term implies, the objective of the collaborating style of conflict management is to work together in coming up with an integrative resolution equally satisfying to the parties in conflict. It is closely related to the concept of finding a win-win solution to a problem; that is, no one party gets away as winner, but instead all parties walk away with a concession favorable to their interest.
In the collaborating style of conflict management, there is a high premium on cooperation, supportive dialogue, recognition of each person’s point of view and the merging of ideas to come up with solutions. Responsibility in the execution of the resolution is also shared by the parties in conflict.
According to the Search for Common Ground, a non-profit organization that aims to transform conflict into cooperative action, there are four steps to cooperative conflict management:
Raise the issue with the other person in a way that invites cooperation.
Listen to each other to discover your interests.
Create options: possible ways to solve the problem.
Develop an agreement that meets as many as possible both of your interests.
As a conflict resolution style, collaborating has many advantages.
For one, it may be considered as the most respectful, as it takes great pains in making sure that each side is listened to, and each point of view is carefully weighed and considered, before coming up with a solution. It also promotes positive feelings among parties in conflict: a key element in improving relations among those engaged in a divisive issue. Most importantly, collaborating communicates the idea that a solution can be reached if people will simply put their heads together.
The main disadvantage of the collaborating style is that it is time-consuming and presumes that the parties involved are willing to consider and are skilled in assessing their opponent’s point of view. Unless those in conflict are open to investing not time, but also attitudes of open-mindedness and consideration, the collaborating style of conflict management will not work.
If collaborating involves the merging of two different points of view, competing is the opposite. Instead of working together, competing promotes seeing the other party as an opponent that must be challenged, if not defeated. The objective is clearly to win, and for the other party to lose.
There are many functional ways of dealing with conflict through competing. For instance, you can argue your case to an arbitrator and show through logic and emotional appeal that you are on the right and/or that yours is the aggrieved party. Healthy competition is also not bad in an organization; for instance, it’s not unheard of for some companies to decide a promotion based on which employee can clock in the best sales. And during crisis situations when immediate action is critical, the competing style may be the best way of producing timely intervention.
Competing, however, is vulnerable to underhanded tactics and victimization. There are some people who are willing to cross many lines to get to the end goal of winning. For instance, bullying and intimidation can be offshoots of a competing conflict management style. The same goes with the use of personal attacks and manipulation. Under-the-table campaigns, such as the use of bribery, can also come about because of competing. The winner of the conflict is not always the person who is on the right; rather he or she may simply be the person who holds the most power.
Compromising, also referred to as bargaining, is the middle ground between collaborating and competing.
When you compromise, just like when you engage in collaboration, you’re willing to see the other person’s point of view. But unlike in collaborating, you don’t aim to go so far as find that ultimate solution equally favorable to both sides. Instead, you’re willing to find even just the minimum workable solution, and allow the sacrifice of some interests.
A compromise is recommended when two parties are in a deadlock, and neither side has plans to back down from the stand that they have taken. It is also recommended during the search for temporary solutions to a problem, such as during the time when the immediate goal is to pacify aggressive individuals. Compromise is also first choice for times when there’s need or desire to find a quick resolution to a conflict.
The Accommodating Style of conflict management involves sacrificing most, if not all of your interests in order to satisfy or gain the favor of the other party. Basically, accommodating is deliberately taking a loss on the bargaining table.
Accommodating can come about because a person feels threatened or intimidated by the other person, or perhaps from a lack of skills in assertiveness and negotiation. If this is the case, frequent use of accommodation can do more harm than good in a working environment. It tolerates abusive behavior, and prevents long-term and effective resolutions from being implemented.
But accommodating can also be a strategic move. Some parties choose to take a loss for some other gain, including courting the goodwill of the other party for future negotiations or to simply maintain peace in the workplace. Accommodating is also the most advisable approach to take when you have realized that you are in the wrong, or that what you’re fighting for is not that relevant in the general scheme of things.
As the term implies, the avoiding style of conflict management involves actively finding ways to steer clear of a problem situation and/or simply not acting on the issue in contention.
At first glance, avoidance seems like an immature and ineffective approach to handling disagreements in the workplace — and there are many cases when this is true! For instance, if you choose to pretend that bribery doesn’t exist in the workplace means that a serious problem within the organization gets ignored. Not speaking to your boss, simply because you’re scared of getting reprimanded for your poor performance, is also on example of avoiding that does more harm than good.
But there are cases when avoidance is strategic and recommended.
When the issue in contention is petty and lacks bearing in the general scheme of things, then perhaps avoidance is the better choice. For instance, if you know that your co-worker is snapping at you because you’re all very tired and pulling in overtime, then it’s better to disengage from the conflict. After all, the rude behavior you’re experiencing is just a symptom of the moment’s stress. Avoidance is also recommended when the act of engaging an opponent will result in more harm than good. Lastly, avoidance is recommended when the issue in contention is best postponed, and/or when parties in conflict need time and space to cool their heads down.
When one is prone to using avoidance as a conflict management style, it’s important to discern there are larger personal and systemic issues that must be addressed. Avoidance, for example, is common among people suffering from low self-esteem and lack of assertiveness. It may also be indicative of authoritarian management — perhaps you tend towards avoidance because you feel stifled and dominated by those in power. If the avoiding conflict is not for strategic purposes, then perhaps avoidance is not the best conflict management style to use.
More About Civility in The Workplace
Introduction to Workplace Civility
Effective Work Etiquette
Costs and Rewards of Workplace Civility
Getting to the Cause of Incivility
Negotiation and Workplace Incivility
Writing a Workplace Civility Policy
Implementing the Workplace Civility Policy