The Five Conflict Styles
(Thomas/Killman, 1972 with further descriptions and analysis by Bonnie Burrell, 2001)
The Competing Style is when you stress your position without considering opposing points of view. This style is highly assertive with minimal cooperativeness; the goal is to win. The competing style is used when a person has to take quick action, make unpopular decisions, handle vital issues, or when one needs protection in a situation where noncompetitive behavior can be exploited. To develop this style you must develop your ability to argue and debate, use your rank or position, assert your opinions and feelings, and learn to state your position and stand your ground.
Overuse of this style can lead to lack of feedback, reduced learning, and low empowerment. This can result in being surrounded by Yes-Men. People who overuse the competing style often use inflammatory statements due to a lack of interpersonal skills training. When overuse is taken to an extreme the person will create errors in the implementation of the task by withholding needed information, talking behind another persons back (or back-stabbing), using eye motions and gestures designed to express disapproval, and creating distractions by fiddling or interrupting. Overuse of this style can be exhibited through constant tension or anger and occasional outbursts of violent temper.
Under use of the competing style leads to a lowered level of influence, indecisiveness, slow action, and withheld contributions. When the competing style is underused some emergent behaviors people exhibit include justifying the behaviors, demanding concessions as a condition of working on the problem, threatening separation as a way of making others give in, and launching personal attacks.
The Avoiding Style is when you do not satisfy your concerns or the concerns of the other person. This style is low assertiveness and low cooperativeness. The goal is to delay. It is appropriate to use this style when there are issues of low importance, to reduce tensions, or to buy time. Avoidance is also appropriate when you are in a low power position and have little control over the situation, when you need to allow others to deal with the conflict, or when the problem is symptomatic of a much larger issue and you need to work on the core issue. To develop skills in this style use foresight in knowing when to withdraw, learn to sidestep loaded questions or sensitive areas by using diplomacy, become skillful at creating a sense of timing, and practice leaving things unresolved.
Overuse of the avoidance style can result in a low level of input, decision-making by default, and allowing issues to fester, which can produce a breakdown in communication between team members. This can inhibit brainstorming sessions from being productive and can prevent the team from functioning. People who overuse avoidance feel they cannot speak frankly without fear of repercussions. The overuse of conflict avoidance can often be a result of childhood experiences, past work-related incidents, and negative experiences with conflict resolution. Behaviors associated with the overuse of avoidance include being silent, sullen, and untruthful when asked if something is wrong being. A milder form of avoidance behavior is when the team member procrastinates about getting work done and deliberately takes an opposing point of view inappropriately during a decision-making situation, or is timid, withdrawn, or shy. Extreme behaviors can occur when avoidance is overused. A person begins to be negative, critical and sarcastic. Other extreme avoidance behaviors include becoming passive aggressive by being late and not paying attention at meetings. It also lends a greater importance to this style as compared to the other styles because you have devoted such a disproportionate amount of time to the style.)
Under use of the avoidance style results in hostility and hurt feelings. In addition, work can become overwhelming because too many issues are taken on at once, resulting in an inability to prioritize and delegate. When avoidance is underused a team member may deny that there is a problem and allow their hurt feelings to prevent communication.
The Compromising Style is finding a middle ground or forgoing some of your concerns and committing to other's concerns. This style is moderately assertive and moderately cooperative; the goal is to find middle ground. The compromising style is used with issues of moderate importance, when both parties are equally powerful and equally committed to opposing views. This style produces temporary solutions and is appropriate when time is a concern, and as a back up for the competing and collaborating styles when they are unsuccessful in resolving the situation. Compromising skills include the ability to communicate and keep the dialogue open, the ability to find an answer that is fair to both parties, the ability to give up part of what you want, and the ability to assign value to all aspects of the issue.
Overuse of the compromising style leads to loss of long-term goals, a lack of trust, creation of a cynical environment, and being viewed as having no firm values. Overuse of compromise can result in making concessions to keep people happy without resolving the original conflict.
Under use leads to unnecessary confrontations, frequent power struggles, and ineffective negotiating.
The Collaborating Style is when the concern is to satisfy both sides. It is highly assertive and highly cooperative; the goal is to find a win/win solution. Appropriate uses for the collaborating style include integrating solutions, learning, merging perspectives, gaining commitment, and improving relationships. Using this style can support open discussion of issues, task proficiency, equal distribution of work amongst the team members, better brainstorming, and development of creative problem solving. This style is appropriate to use frequently in a team environment. Collaborating skills include the ability to use active or effective listening, confront situations in a non-threatening way, analyze input, and identify underlying concerns.
Overuse of the collaborating style can lead to spending too much time on trivial matters, diffusion of responsibility, being taken advantage of, and being overloaded with work. Under use can result in using quick fix solutions, lack of commitment by other team members, disempowerment, and loss of innovation.
The Accommodating Style is foregoing your concerns in order to satisfy the concerns of others. This style is low assertiveness and high cooperativeness; the goal is to yield. The accommodating style is appropriate to use in situations when you want to show that you are reasonable, develop performance, create good will, keep peace, retreat, or for issues of low importance. Accommodating skills include the ability to sacrifice, the ability to be selfless, the ability to obey orders, and the ability to yield.
Overuse of the accommodating style results in ideas getting little attention, restricted influence, loss of contribution, and anarchy. People who overuse the accommodating style exhibit a lack of desire to change and usually demonstrate anxiety over future uncertainties. One of their main desires may be to keep everything the same. When accommodating is overused certain behaviors emerge. Some of these emergent behaviors include giving up personal space, making "me" or other victim statements, being overly helpful and then holding a grudge, and speaking in an extremely quiet almost unintelligible voice. Under use of the accommodating style can result in lack of rapport, low morale, and an inability to yield. When the accommodating style is underused a person may display apathy as a way of not addressing the anger or hurt, and make statements full of innuendo and double meanings.
Interpreting Your Thomas Killman Conflict Mode Inventory Scores
Usually, after getting the results of any test or assessment, the first question people ask is: "What are the right answers?" In the case of conflict-handling behavior, there are no universal right answers. All five modes are useful in some situations: each represents a set of useful social skills. Our conventional wisdom recognizes, for example, that often two heads are better than one (Collaborating). But it also says, "Kill your enemies with kindness (Accommodating), Split the difference (Compromising), Leave well enough alone (Avoiding), and Might makes right (Competing). The effectiveness of a given conflict-handling mode depends upon the requirements of the specific conflict situation and the skill with which the mode is used.
Each of us is capable of using all five conflict-handling modes: none of us can be characterized as having a single, rigid style of dealing with conflict. However, any given individual uses some modes better than others and therefore, tends to rely upon those modes more heavily than others, whether because of temperament or practice.
The conflict behaviors which individuals use are therefore the result of both their personal predispositions and the requirements of the situations in which they find themselves. The Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument is designed to assess this mix of conflict-handling modes.
To help you judge how appropriate your utilization of the five modes
is, we have listed a number of uses for each mode based on lists generated
by company presidents. Your score, high or low, indicates how often you
tend to utilize each mode in the appropriate situation. There is a possibility
that your social skills lead you to rely upon some conflict behaviors
more or less than necessary. To help you determine if this is a problem
for you we have also listed some diagnostic questions to serve as warning
signals for the under or overuse of each mode.
1. Do you find yourself hurting people's feelings or stirring up hostilities?
2. Do you often feel harried or overwhelmed by a number of issues?
Now that you know a little more about conflict styles and your personal preferences, the goal is to develop skills in all of the styles so that you can mold conflict into a constructive form. Conflict can be used to help expose important issues, develop learning and creativity, and can help to develop trust and openness (Brake & Walker, 1995). Once you understand your styles you can view conflict management through five interrelated issues: source issues, strategy issues, context issues, reaction issues, and power issues.
Source issues in teams can result from individuals having different values, beliefs, and perceptions of self-interest. Team members can have conflicting goals and priorities, contrasting methodologies, different perceptions of events, and disparities in the distribution of work.
Strategy issues arise when people dont have the skills to choose the appropriate conflict management style. Conflict can escalate when incompatible potential solutions to conflicts have not been analyzed and when there is no acknowledgement of the importance of the issue to individual team members.
Context issues are concerned with where and when the conflict is taking place, which includes culture, environment, and the history of the conflict. Conflict will escalate because of context issues when there is a loyalty to a specific sub group within the team, or when one member feels they must support friends within the team; this creates factions or polarized subgroups. Another context issue that can be cultural is when the team members admire or tolerate displays of anger or stubbornness; this can result in conflict escalation.
Reaction issues involve the emotions being expressed during the conflict. An example of a reaction issue is when team members see themselves as under attack. Conflicts can escalate when one or more team members perceive they are losing the conflict.
Power issues usually involve resources such as money, time, knowledge, skill, information authority, legitimacy, and networking issues. Conflict escalation occurs in this context when there is a lack of authority to restrain hostile behavior.
Recognizing the different aspects of a conflict and the different manners in which conflict escalates allows you to deal with situations more effectively. When a conflict has high intensity and detrimentally effects the entire team the plan should be to narrow the issues down to specific issues so it can be resolved. The SOLVE, the Anger Action Model, allows you to narrow the issues and settle them.