Conflict. It’s an inevitable part of any workplace, and none of us can escape it. Some of it is important for the learning and growth process if it’s resolved healthily. Other forms of conflict are caused by bad apples and must be handled with in their own way.
How we resolve conflict will go a long way toward proving our effectiveness as managers and ensuring that the business is operating as swimmingly as possible.
Let’s give a “Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model Example” situation to start with. Say a large AAA video game development firm is consolidating its workforce, and two teams of programmers are asked to join forces. Each were under different managers with radically different leadership styles. Conflict in this situation is most likely inevitable. There will be a big Change Management piece to sort through this to make it work and the managers from both parties will enter the merger with a game plan so they aren’t trying to feel their way through a situation with intuition – or worse, blind luck. Conflict management exercises may not be enough to resolve this. Enter the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model.
In 1974, a pair of researchers – the eponymous Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann – studied workers and their routine conflicts in the workplace. Over time, they were able to observe a pattern of ways in which people resolved conflict; most methods could be distilled down to five core methods. These five options formed the basis of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model Instrument and the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Resolution Model.
The model has two approaches, also known as “dimensions”: assertiveness and cooperation. Most of you are probably intimately familiar with each of these dimensions on their own, as well as the associated personality traits, but not necessarily how they interact. That is where this model shines. There are five forms of conflict resolution that use these two approaches to different degrees. But more on this later.
The grid that forms the backbone of the model is a simple 2×2 design with an overlapping square in the center, much like a more involved Venn diagram. At the centre is the Compromising mode of conflict resolution. On the x-axis is cooperativeness, and on the y is assertiveness. The four other cells (besides the aforementioned Compromise) are as follows:
Let’s go over the two Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes now.
We frequently get asked by individuals enrolled in our Team Leader Apprenticeship whether assertiveness is relevant and necessary – as it could be perceived as a counterproductive trait.
However, assertiveness is the degree to which people are willing to take initiative and force their will upon others. This strategy is useful in the following situations:
Naturally, assertiveness often leads to faster resolution and reinforces power within the dominance hierarchy, but it can cause friction, backlash, and reinforce hierarchies that are too vertical or power-driven. It can also lower morale and autonomy among strong and equally disagreeable/assertive workers beneath you. It’s best to be prudent, as always.
As it sounds, cooperation is the degree to which people are willing to work together to accomplish a goal. It’s all about teamwork and weighing different points of view, much like a democracy. Here are situations where cooperation may be superior to assertiveness:
Cooperation has some advantages: it minimizes fallout and may enhance the worker or manager’s reputation of being a diplomat and a people person.
However, it takes time to weigh all sides and come to agreements – time you may not have. Also, the more stubborn the other person or group is, the harder it will be to be cooperative – to the point where you may just waste your time. Know when to be assertive and when to be cooperative!
It should now be clear why there are different combinations of the two dimensions, as no single dimension can be useful for all situations. And remember: to implement this model and determine which dimension is best, you have to be able to successfully identify conflict within your own workplace.
As we described above, the Thomas Kilmann Conflict mode instrument has 5 modes: competing, avoiding, accommodating, collaborating, and – the sweet spot – compromising. Let’s dive into each of these Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes a bit further!
Mode One: Avoiding
At the low assertiveness and low compromising corner is the “avoiding” mode. As it sounds like, this involves avoiding conflict entirely. The person will watch the situation play itself out organically and try to avoid getting directly involved. It’s the typical passive approach that we see in our day-to-day lives more than ever before. Many people just want to avoid conflict, which certainly has its place, but it can also be a very toxic way to handle things. A business would fail if everyone avoided conflict – that’s just common sense!
Sometimes it’s good to avoid situations. Perhaps there was a huge blowup at work and the parties involved needed to relax for a while and focus on their tasks. Perhaps the issue is super minor or low priority, and the workers need to focus on more pressing concerns. Therefore, people weigh their options constantly.
People subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis and determine if the potential downsides of engaging in debate or conflict aren’t worth the potential gains. Most bystanders would naturally take this approach, but if a worker or employer needs to be engaged in conflict directly for the benefit of the business or their livelihood, then they’d be well advised to use this option as a last resort.
Mode Two: Accommodating
Also at the low assertiveness end, but with a higher degree of compromising baked within, is the accommodating option. This, as it sounds, involves acquiescing to the rival/other individuals and giving in to their stance. Sometimes we must “take the loss” and accept that we should change our ways or yield to the other parties. Unlike avoiding, this mode acknowledges the conflict and puts an end to any tension. This is very useful if you are directly involved in the conflict but don’t want to deal with the situation – or if your way is proven wrong.
Keep in mind that a person choosing this strategy may lose a lot of reputation or favor if they were the aggressor. Be very careful about taking this if your position is strong and you have a lot to lose – both within the conflict and the greater context of the organization.
Mode Three: Competing
High assertiveness and low compromising is the classic mode of competition. The workplace is full of competitive people, sure, but in the context of conflict resolution, competing means people openly dissent against the other party and directly try to prove that their way is right. This is the classic debate or argumentative stance: “my way or the highway,” so to speak. It’s for pressing matters or situations where you need to assert your authority – or if you know you’re right and the stakes are high. If you have the authority and it’s an emergency, don’t hesitate to make others bend to your will.
Just be careful about employing this strategy excessively because it can lead to massive blowback. The more competitive you are, the less likely people will be to work with you in the future, and the more likely they will shut you out of the loop as much as possible. If you elevate your threat level too needlessly, people may target your reputation or even your livelihood. Be sure that your reasoning is strong.
Mode Four: Collaborating
Let’s say you want an assertive option that is still highly accommodating. That’s where collaborating comes into play. In a nutshell, the collaborating mode allows you to acknowledge your rival’s points and take the time to agree. This is indeed very time-consuming and resource-intensive, but it can be a great way to handle an issue if both sides have good points and there’s no clear-cut winner in the conflict. A lot of great things come out of collaborating, but it can be a strain on resources and slow everything down. It’s usually the right way, but not always.
A lot of creativity can come out of collaborations. The power of many people bouncing ideas off each other is huge. Of course, all parties must have some degree of assertiveness – otherwise, the other person is simply acquiescing and not providing constructive inputs. Be assertive but don’t dominate the collaboration or else there’s no point. It’s also important to question whether you should collaborate with someone you don’t trust – they may stall the process at your expense or steal your ideas, for instance.
Mode Five: Compromising
Here’s the center of everything on the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model. Compromising is all about being somewhat assertive and cooperative – giving up a lot of ground and gaining a little bit. The saying “A Good Compromise Leaves Nobody Fully Satisfied” is true, but it’s often better than the alternative.
Collaborating is a solid choice in most situations (unless there’s a sense of urgency) because you’ll spend more time coming up with the “right” answer, not one that leaves everyone in limbo. Compromising in the short run can lead to additional conflict in the long run, but it will put a Band-Aid on the situation in the interim. This is the even-keeled approach.
Overall, compromising is often used to resolve heated conflict but not to the point where people are grandstanding. It’s an everyday solution – common in democracies – that is often revised many times over the subsequent years. Don’t fall into the habit of compromising all of the time when collaborating would be far more gainful.
There is no catch-all situation. Each mode has its strengths and weaknesses and will be a solid choice in certain situations. There are so many variables in play here, including but not limited to:
Personality traits of everyone involved (you, your rivals, the managers, customers, other workers, and so forth): some people respond well to disagreeability, but others don’t. Some people can’t be disagreeable at ALL and would struggle with the assertiveness dimension. Others may only avoid situations, forcing you to take a more assertive approach to resolve the conflict. There are so many situations, and no manager can be perfect at predicting the personalities of everyone in a business.
Your hierarchical position: more power means more influence and more responsiveness toward assertive tendencies, and vice versa.
The problem itself: if there’s a sense of urgency, you’ll need to be more assertive to ensure that the problem gets resolved faster. If it’s not a big issue, the “juice may not be worth the squeeze” and you may even want to consider avoiding it entirely.
Interpersonal relationships: if you have a strong relationship with the other side of the conflict, you may want to pick a more cooperative solution. If they are a highly disagreeable rival, you may want to be less cooperative. Even still, perhaps you can treat the conflict as an opportunity to mend fences or win a rival’s trust, so you may want to be cooperative after all. Even AI can’t properly determine the right mode to use in all situations.
Conclusion & Additional Help
The workplace is a complex jungle of sticky situations, and this conflict model is simply a tool to help organise ideas and come up with a game plan for bushwhacking through it. Like all tools, it’s not foolproof: it’s just designed to aid us in the difficult job of resolving conflict and managing our fellow complex humans.
Of course, the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Instrument is only one tool in your arsenal. If you’re looking for more tips on how to manage conflict within a team or at work in general, this conflict resource may help. Otherwise, we wish you the best of luck in your attempts to employ the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Model in your day-to-day management endeavors!
For additional help try out our Management Training or Leadership Development Training, both of which will help you to work through conflict between you and others and when your team members have conflict between them and you need to sort.
Updated on: 4 October, 2022
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