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By Keith Barnwell


“Leadership has a harder job to do than just choose sides. It must bring sides together” – Jesse Jackson

As a professional executive leadership coach, I frequently come across managers and leaders who describe themselves as ‘conflict avoidant’. The truth is that although there are people that actually do enjoy an argument, most people are not comfortable with conflict.

Conflict in the workplace is inevitable, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. When managed effectively it can lead to personal and professional growth and often encourages creative and innovative thinking. Unfortunately, when conflict is not handled effectively, the results can be extremely damaging to both individuals and teams.

Disagreements and/or conflicting goals can quickly escalate into personal enmity that breaks down communication and teamwork. Talent and productivity declines as people disengage from each other and ultimately their work. It’s easy for team morale to deteriorate in a downward spiral of negativity and recrimination. A leader that is not prepared to deal with


conflict that affects team morale and productivity is failing their team and their organisation and ultimately missing an opportunity to further develop their own professional skills.

So if we accept that conflict needs to be dealt with, the question that remains is how? It has to be dealt with fairly, constructively and with a plan, otherwise it’s all too easy to get pulled into the argument, take sides and create an even larger problem.

In the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in degrees of co-operation and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a preferred conflict resolution style and noted that different styles were most useful in different situations.

Competitive types take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things such as position, rank, expertise or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when there is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast. However, it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied and resentful when used in less urgent situations or continually.

Collaborative types try to meet the needs of all people involved. These people can be highly assertive but, unlike the competitive style, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone’s opinion is important. Useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution; when there have been previous conflicts in the group, or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off. This style is most effective in mature teams.

Compromising types try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone (a win-win). Everyone is expected to give up something. Compromise is useful when the cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground; when equal strength opponents are at a standstill and when there is a deadline looming. Again, an effective conflict resolution style for teams.

Accommodating types display a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of their own needs. These people are not assertive but like to be highly co-operative but may be prepared give up too much ground when seeking peace. Accommodation is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a position to collect later on this favour. Used too often this style can undermine any respect or authority that a manager or leader has.

Avoiding types seek to evade the conflict entirely. This style can result in a manager or leader delegating controversial decisions for fear of hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when victory is impossible, when the controversy is trivial, or when someone else is in a better position to solve the problem. However, in many situations this is the most ineffective leadership approach to take when dealing with conflict.

Understanding these different styles, and when best to use them, allows you to consider the most appropriate approach (or mixture of approaches) for the situation. You need to be aware of your own instinctive approach and learn how to change this if necessary. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) can help you to identify which style you tend towards when conflict arises. For the best results, adopt an approach that meets the situation, resolves the problem, respects people’s legitimate interests and mends damaged working relationships.

Some others things you should consider in your approach to conflict resolution are:

Understand the difference between healthy tension and unhealthy conflict. Disagreements and arguments over professional issues are quite normal and healthy; they simply demonstrate differing opinions or approaches, the same differences that make high performing teams more effective and successful. These types of disagreements are the result of natural ‘tensions’ that arise in all organisations.  For example, often there can be a natural tension between the desire to achieve perfection and the need to maintain healthy profitability and growth.  These and similar ongoing tensions need to be managed rather than resolved. However, if disagreements continue once a decision has been made or a course of action chosen there is a risk of the conflict becoming unhealthy. This is certainly the case if things turn personal and begin to affect relationships or the team dynamic. A major element of conflict management is knowing when to intervene, which is normally at the point when the conflict is threatening to hamper individual or team performance.

Acknowledge the conflict. For many there is a tendency to ignore the first signs of conflict, perhaps it seems trivial or is difficult to differentiate from the normal healthy debate that teams thrive on. If you are concerned about the level of conflict within your team you need to seriously consider the impact it is having on team dynamics and performance and then talk to the team members. Once the team recognise and accepts the problem, you can collectively start working towards a resolution.

Listen to all sides. Before you get directly involved you need to understand the root cause of any disagreement, especially if people are making negative assumptions about one another.  Understanding and appreciating the differing points of view involved is key to working towards a mutually agreeable resolution. Consider asking those involved would how they would like to see the situation resolved; moving them from ‘being’ the problem to ‘solving’ the problem.

 Ensure that the conflict remains at the professional level at all times and never allow it to drift into personal recrimination. The important thing is to maintain a healthy balance of constructive difference of opinion, and avoid the more negative effects of conflict that are destructive and disruptive. Also, be wary of others within the team ‘taking sides’ as this can become extremely divisive.

Be prepared to have the difficult conversations. At times some people can become so wrapped up in their own need to be ‘right’ that they are unable to see the effect that their behaviour has on others. As a leader you must be ready to give them honest and timely feedback, particularly when they are having a direct effect on team moral.

Take charge. When you see conflict starting to become disruptive to the team focus and effort you can try chose to ignore it, blame others for it, try to deal with it through thinly veiled hints and suggestions; or you can be direct, clarify what is going on, and attempt to reach a resolution using the most suitable style, or mixtures of styles outlined above. These are the times when those in management and leadership positions must be ready to earn their salaries, no matter how conflict averse they feel.

Remember feelings matter. No matter how well you deal with conflict there may be some in the team who feel that they have ‘lost’ in some way. They may be left feeling battered and bruised, defeated, treated unfairly, powerless or inferior. They may also be thinking that their judgment or status has been called into question or weakened in some way. It is crucial that you remain aware of the emotional impact that conflict can have on some and be prepared to deal with the potential ‘fallout’.

Conflict can be constructive as long as it is managed and dealt with directly and quickly. By respecting the natural differences between people and being prepared to resolve conflict when it happens, you will be able to maintain a healthy and creative team environment. The key is to remain open to other people’s ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. When team members begin to see issues from other perspectives, it opens up new ways of thinking, leading to new and innovative solutions and better team performance.

Thank you for reading and please share this post with others who you think may find it helpful.

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This is an extract from the LeaderFocus App for the iPad available on iTunes.  To learn more and to download the LeaderFocus App click on the icon.  Keith Barnwell is a leadership development specialist and executive coach at It’s All About Leadership