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How to manage conflict: Thomas-Kilmann to the rescue!

Projects can be a hotbed of conflict. From the difficult stakeholder who wants to undermine the project’s success to a disagreement about a feature of a deliverable, project work lends itself to workplace conflict situations. And project managers contribute hugely to that because we go out and look for it. We challenge leaders, we talk about risk and what might go wrong and we call people out on poor performance through project monitoring and control.You could say, part of the job is in fact looking for trouble Conflict should be a healthy part of any team’s development, and it’s a good way to challenge requirements and ensure that your business case and plans stand up to scrutiny. So while you shouldn’t shy away from conflict, it does help to be prepared for it. Conflict can be good – both for the project and the team – if it’s handled correctly. When conflict is constructive it means that we examine our different points of views with an open mind and learn from each other. The real problem arises when we try to ignore a conflict. When we elegantly push it under the carpet without dealing with it. Then it will mushroom below the surface and eventually become destructive.

Let’s imagine that you are in the start-up phase of your project. The team has been identified and you’re about to make a number of important decisions: which project methodology to use, which tools to use, how to design the solution, which technologies to incorporate and how often the team should get together. How would you go about leading the team through these decisions? Would you make all of the decisions on your own, because you are the project manager and you feel that it’s ultimately your responsibility? You would then subsequently inform the team about the decisions and why you’ve made them. Or, would you consult the team and make the decisions democratically as a group? Or perhaps you would make some decisions on your own and delegate others to those who are best qualified to make the decision. Take a moment to think through the last major decisions you made on your project and how you handled them.

The way you approach decisions says something about how collaborative you are and how you will tend to deal with conflict. Do you believe that as a project manager you need to make the final decision – also in times of conflict – or do you believe that the team collectively should come to an agreement? I’m not necessarily trying to tell you that one is better than the other. What’s important is that you become aware of what your default or preferred method is so that you can begin to evaluate if it is also the most effective in a given situation. I remember that years ago I attended a leadership workshop with my colleagues. My own perception was that my way of leading the team and resolving conflict was very democratic. One of my colleagues turned around to me and said “well, that’s what you think!”. I replied, “yes, I always ask the team for input” to which he responded “True! But at the end you make the decision yourself!” That was a real eye opener to me. Although I consulted the team, my approach was far from democratic!

To better understand how we respond during conflict, let’s examine the Thomas-Kilmann model. Back in the seventies Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann introduced this simple model, which describes five different ways of approaching conflict. In short:

  1. Accommodating – This is when you cooperate to a high-degree, and it may be at your own expense, and actually work against your own goals, objectives, and desired outcomes.  
  2. Avoiding –  This is when you simply avoid the issue.  
  3. Collaborating – This is where you partner or pair up with the other party to achieve both of your goals.  
  4. Competing – This is the “win-lose” approach.  You act in a very assertive way to achieve your goals,
  5. Compromising – This is the “lose-lose” scenario where neither party really achieves what they want.

Accommodating

The accommodating style is the complete opposite of competing. If you tend to use this style you are mostly concerned with satisfying other people’s needs and completely dismiss your own. You will have a strong desire to please others and a need to be liked. You are worried about upsetting your team members or falling out with people, which is why you quickly give in to other people’s demands. If you feel, for instance, that agile is the right approach, but someone else pushes for waterfall, you may initially voice your concerns. But you will be quick to agree to the advantages of waterfall – and ultimately accept it as the chosen methodology – even if you would prefer not to. Being overly accommodating is often rooted in a lack of respect for your own views and ideas. Although at a surface level you may appear happy, deep down resentment may build as you feel that you are continuously losing out. Be careful how often you use this strategy as if you capitulate too often, people might start to see you as a walkover. 
Take-out: This may be the best course of action when you place more value on satisfying another’s concerns than your own (you’d rather build goodwill than risk the relationship), and when you believe you are yielding to a better position, or recognize that you simply can’t win

Avoiding

The avoiding style is unassertive and uncooperative. When you use this style you neither pursue your own concerns nor those of the other person. In effect it means that you don’t deal with the conflict at all. Perhaps you feel that it’s too big and too difficult to decide which methodology the project should use, because you don’t understand the details, or the implications of the decision. As a result you push it aside and play down the importance. You may even tell the team that it’s not an important decision right now. When you sidestep an issue, postpone an issue or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation, you are in effect avoiding the conflict. It may feel good in the short-term, but as the issue hasn’t been resolved it will come back with a vengeance.
Take-out: Use this mode when you decide that the conflict has no value, and that you’re better off saving your time and energy for other matters. Additionally, this can be a good temporary solution if you need more time to gather facts, refocus, take a break, or simply change the setting of the conflict. However, be sure not to avoid people in your attempt to avoid conflict—don’t be evasive.

Collaborating

This style is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. When you collaborate you attempt to work with others to find a solution that satisfies all concerns. In order to achieve such a win-win outcome you will have to dig into the detail of the issue and identify the underlying needs and wants of everyone involved. Looking at the example of agile and waterfall, a true win-win solution could be one where the proponents of waterfall get their need for a well-defined end-deliverables met, whilst the proponents of agile get their need for iterative development met. It’s only by exploring disagreement and examining the underlying needs that true collaboration is possible. When we use the collaborative style we are open to creative solutions and are able to turn conflict into something positive. This is often seen as the “best” way to manage conflict, but the “best” way can be any of these. If my son runs towards a busy road, collaborating isn’t the approach I’m going to use! All of the conflict resolution strategies can be useful to you in the right situation
Take-out: When you believe the conflict is worth investing the time and energy to more deeply explore the issue, this may be the best path. Collaborate effectively by picturing the other’s concerns, clarifying and sharing your own underlying concern, and helping the other parties clarify their concerns as well. Avoid assigning blame or using “I” language, and try to use the word and rather than but.

Competing

If you use this style you will do everything you can to pursue your own concerns at the expense of someone else. You are highly assertive and at the same time you are uncooperative. You want to win the argument and you are pushing your own agenda and fighting your own corner. If you are a strong advocate of using an agile approach on your project for instance, but your team prefers waterfall, you will build the case for agile, arguing why your view is the right one. You will highlight all the positives of agile and you won’t be interested in hearing what your team has to say. You may even use your position as the project manager to just make the decision that suits you without inviting debate from the team. So in essence, when you compete you get what you want, but you burn your bridges in the process and disengage the team. However, you might not feel that you have ‘resolved’ conflict if you use these strategies. You’ve made a decision and moved a project on, but you’ve probably ruffled some feathers at the same time. Forcing is really only something to use when you really have to (and there is no other option). 
Take-out:This may be the way to go when you believe that your concerns trump the other’s concerns, and it is worth more sizable risk in terms of the resistance you’ll encounter and the damage to your relationship.

Compromising

Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. It’s a commonly used style, which identifies a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both sides. It sits in between competing, accommodating, avoiding and collaborating. When you compromise you gain more than when you accommodate, and give up more than when you compete. Likewise, you address the issue more directly than when you avoid, but you don’t explore it in as much depth as when you collaborate. In other words, it’s a true compromise! In our agile vs. waterfall conflict, a compromise could mean that the agile camp gets some features that are important to them in exchange for features that are must-have by the waterfall camp. Unfortunately you may end up with a halfway house, which hasn’t been thought through properly, meaning that both parties loose. It’s different from collaborating because neither party gets exactly what they were hoping for, but at least you reach a position where you can move on.
Take-out:  This mode is optimal when you feel that the point of conflict is worth only a modest strain on the relationship; you’re willing to have some of your needs satisfied, but don’t feel the need to get everything you want out of it. Compromise effectively by suggesting concessions without looking weak, and ensuring that your concessions are reciprocated. Also, insist on a criterion of fairness up front.

The beauty of the Thomas-Kilmann model is that the more we know about these five conflict modes, the more readily we recognize them when we see them in action—both in ourselves, and in others. I’ll never forget the moment these principles were solidified for me, during a meeting in which one person was dictating what needed to be done, and another was saying “sure”—a classic competing/accommodating interaction. After you become aware, you’ll start to see the modes playing out everywhere, and you’ll be empowered to practice identifying the optimum style for a given conflict and operating in it—and to help your team start to do the same.