Successful Conflict Management
Conflict is a universal human experience. We have conflicts over things as small as what to have for dinner or the best way to decorate a room, and as big as how to allocate meager resources or navigate a business negotiation. While conflict is often framed as being entirely negative—with one person or idea entirely opposed to the other—the reality is that conflict is little more than different people having different values or caring about different things.
Conflict can be dealt with in many different ways. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI®) identifies five conflict management “modes” and is a great place to start to understand conflict and how individuals tend to resolve it. Each mode has its own benefits and costs, and should be used judiciously in order to achieve the best outcomes for all parties involved.
The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode: Competing
The Competing mode is characterized by being both assertive and uncooperative. People who default to the competing mode often have strong opinions and try to get their way, regardless of the consequences for others. In other words, they feel the need to “win” a conflict at any cost. The decision reached and the outcome of the conflict are more important than any damaged relationship or other consequences.
The Competing mode can take many forms. For example, one may use one’s position or qualifications to impose or dictate a decision or course of action. A manager, supervisor, or commanding officer may say something like, “Sorry, Bob, but that’s my decision as your boss.” Another example would be “hard bargaining” without making any compromises or concessions, “My bottom dollar is $5,000. Take it or leave it.” Notice that there is no room for negotiation or conversation in either of these examples.
While the TKI™ Competing mode has obvious drawbacks, including the possibility of strained work relationships, suboptimal decisions due to a lack of discussion, and possible deadlock, it also has significant benefits when used judiciously. Being assertive and standing up for one’s ideals or opinions can increase others’ respect. It could also ensure a quick decision is made and can be a great way to test assumptions. The key is deciding when and how to compete.
When to use the Competing Conflict Management Style
In general, the Competing mode should be used sparingly and when collaborating is not possible. Competing may be appropriate when unpopular actions, like layoffs and budget cuts, are necessary, or when quick, decisive action is necessary. Competing may also be necessary if you or your department are under attack. If you decide to take a competing approach, be persuasive rather than forceful. Lay the groundwork first and explain your motives and position as specifically as possible. If you can, appeal to shared concerns, such as the welfare of your organization, and give evidence from across departments. It is also important to stay respectful and avoid threatening or punishing others. Using carrots is almost always better than using sticks. Once a decision is reached, remember to reward and support the new behavior. If you need to, don’t be afraid of using a little “tough love” to keep things on track—make sure they understand what needs to be done and why, and be sure to document your discussion.
Take the time to understand when and how to use the five conflict-handling modes could help you handle conflicts in your own life even better.
Introduction to Conflict Management (Kenneth W. Thomas, 2002, CPP Inc.)