Effective Conflict Management

Unfortunately in the practice of economic development conflict seems inevitable. But, conflict doesn’t necessarily need to be divisive. If handled properly it can contribute to an even stronger outcome.

One of the tools I was exposed to in my career is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. The tool is a forced choice survey that assesses an individual’s concern for people versus concern for the task. In my opinion, the most valuable aspect of the work is the classification of conflict into 5 categories. This model helps you better understand that not all conflict is identical and better prepares you to find a success resolution by adjusting your approach to align with the category.

5 Categories of Conflict 

Competing – “Might Makes Right”. This is the classic power oriented conflict. Each person pursues his or her own concerns at the other’s expense. They use whatever power necessary to win. People will argue, withhold resources, ignore calls, etc.. Competing might look like standing up for your rights, defending a position you feel is correct, or simply refusing to be the person who loses.

This approach is good for when quick decisions are required (e.g. an emergency), when the decision is going to be unpopular (e.g. cost cutting), or when the issue is vital to your community’s welfare and you know you are right.

Accommodating – “Kill Your Enemies With Kindness”. This is the opposite of competing. An individual neglects his or her own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person (or group). Think of it as the self-sacrificing or martyr mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity, obeying without question even if the person would rather not, or constantly yielding to the other person’s point of view.

This approach is good when you realize you are wrong, when the issue is clearly more important to the other person and you want to create goodwill, when harmony is considered of paramount importance, or when it is clear you are going to lose (e.g. your Board is intransigent).

Avoiding – “Leave Well Enough Alone”. This is an unassertive and uncooperative approach to conflict. When avoiding, a person doesn’t share what his or her concerns are up-front. He or she does not address the conflict. The person might diplomatically side step the issue, postpone engagement, or even withdraw from the situation.

This approach makes sense when other issues are more pressing or important, when you perceive there is no chance of having your concerns addressed, when the cost of conflict outweighs the benefits (e.g. responding to a negative editorial), when you want to provide people time to calm down, or when others can resolve the conflict more effectively (e.g. escalating a decision to your Board).

Collaborating – “Two Heads Are Better Than One”. This is the opposite of avoiding. When collaborating, the individual works with the other person to find a win:win solution. It involves framing the issue so it can be solved, understanding the concerns or constraints each other face, and seeking a solution that addresses both sets of concerns.

This approach is best when the concerns of both parties are too important to be compromised, when both parties bring unique insights to the problem, when genuine commitment is needed to facilitate implementation of the solution, or when it is important to build a stronger interpersonal relationship.

Compromising – “Split The Difference”. The objective is to find an expedient and mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. This is a middle ground approach between competing and accommodating. It typically means each party loses something in order to move forward.

This approach makes sense when both parties are deeply passionate about their respective positions, when speed of a decision is important, or when you’ve tried either collaboration or competition and it failed.

Tips To Conflict Resolution

Minimize Emotions – Don’t try to resolve a conflict when people are angry. Take a time out and agree to regroup the next day.

Define the Conflict – Everybody needs to be on the same page with respect to the problem definition. A problem well stated is half solved. TQM uses a Problem Definition Sheet that you may find helpful.

Describe What Caused The Conflict – Understand the sequence of events to help find the root causes.

Describe The Feelings Raised By The Conflict – Honesty is critical and feelings do not have to be rational or justified, they simply are what they are.

Listen Carefully – Be respectful and don’t interrupt when the other person is sharing. Focus on understanding their point of view.

Brainstorm Solutions – Typically, there are many ways to a successful outcome, your way is not the only one. Be open to new ideas. Be willing to compromise and negotiate if required.

Try The Solution – Really commit to the Action Plan and do not directly or indirectly sabotage implementation. Be patient!

If The Solution Doesn’t Work, Try Another – Document both your results and learning. Then, brainstorm new solutions based on the new input. It is a game of continual improvement.

What is Your Experience?

We have all had to deal with conflict in our careers.  What have you found that works, or doesn’t work?  Share an example of a successful conflict resolution you either participated in or observed.

If you are working to lead a successful place branding initiative, you are going to run into conflict.  How you handle it will have a direct impact on determining if your community can find its unique promise or not.

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2 Comments so far

  1. Linda DiMario

    January 31, 2012

    Ed, this is a brilliant model – one which is usually employed instinctively rather than as a thoughtful, calculated strategy to resolve conflict. I wonder how many professionals in our field actually think through this process before engaging in conflict resolution? How many of us could benefit from thoughtfully avoiding or selecting a specific strategy depending upon the level of relationship, resistance and outcome expected? Most conflict is fueled by emotion – the need to “win” rather than do what is actually right for the circumstance. We humans show no signs of willingness to invest our time and energy in an alternative “fuel”! Our need to control as much of our environment and field of play as possible (otherwise, we admit to powerlessness) is at the root of resistance to change and the ability to compromise even though there are thousands of examples in history that support the wisdom of such a decision. The obvious conflict guzzlers roaming the halls of Congress now are courtesy of the American electorate. In a most regretable way, we are fueling this on-going conflict because it gives voice to fear, anger and frustration – but it brings NO clarity and it certainly brings NO resolution. If heaven and hell are the two extremes, the middle ground ought to be earth and our role in preserving it and learning to live with each other in respectful and productive ways. I wish it were not looked upon as an ideal but rather an operating model. What a concept!

  2. Steven Mason

    January 31, 2012

    You have to assess the person or people with whom you are dealing. If you must deal with them, you need to consider if they are fundamentally ethical or fundamentally dishonest; if they genuinely want to work with you or if they are just using you as a tool; and if they are wise or intelligent enough to have meaningful input or if they are so stupid, myopic or otherwise impaired that their “contributions” are quite the opposite. There are other dichotomies, of course, but these suffice to illustrate the problem. Conflict with those in the former category ought to be resolved respectfully, collaboratively and straightforwardly — and, if it can’t be resolved, perhaps there’s no agreement that makes rational sense. Conflict with those in the latter category … think Churchill, not Chamberlain.

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