Conflict is expected in any organization. It will show up in any relationship you consider meaningful or important. Though it gets a bad rap, healthy conflict is essential for high performance, productivity, teamwork, and satisfying relationships.
So it makes sense that one part of effective leadership is understanding how to manage and resolve conflict, whether it involves competing interests and goals or disagreements about how to achieve common goals. There are a number of ways of classifying individual conflict styles, and one of the most popular is the Thomas-Kilmann instrument which measures 5 Conflict Styles.
5 Levels of Leadership
Let’s check out the 5 Conflict Styles and see how they relate to the 5 Levels of Leadership. As a reminder, the levels of leadership are:
- Level 1: “The Victim” (I can’t win, I always lose, why bother)
- Level 2: “The Fighter” (I’m going to win, you’re going to lose)
- Level 3: “The Rationalizer” (I’m focused on winning, it’s great if you win too)
- Level 4: “The Caregiver” (If you win, I win)
- Level 5: “The Opportunist” (We all win or we don’t play, true Win/Win)
5 Conflict Styles
According to Thomas and Kilmann, conflict style #1 is Avoidance. The predominant objective in avoidance is NOT ENGAGING with the issue. In this mode, you’re probably thinking, “I hope this goes away and nothing bad happens.” There’s no investment here in anybody winning–not yourself, the other parties, or the organization or group.
Avoidance can be a characteristic of Level 1 Leadership, because you feel like you can’t win no matter what. Therefore engaging doesn’t have any real benefit for you, and it’s easier to avoid. You can avoid in many different and subtle ways besides just saying “That’s not a problem,” or “I’m not going to talk about that.” You can shift or avoid the topic, implicitly suggest that the issue is not valid, make evasive remarks, focus on procedures instead of the topic, make friendly jokes, or just be vague and non-committal.
Conflict style #2 is Competition. In this style, you ARE engaging with the issue or situation, and you’re engaging in a specific way. The conflict is seen as a battleground, with winners and losers. You are fully invested in getting a win at the expense of the other. You likely see the situation as a zero-sum game in which you need to fight for yourself and protect your turf.
Because it’s focused on getting the win for yourself, competition reflects Level 2 Leadership. The style can have advantages, such as raising an important issue, leading to decisive action and motivating performance. However, the advantages often come at the cost of the relationships involved and may lead to covert “payback.” And, the range of solutions you consider will be narrow and surface-level.
The third style of conflict is Compromise. In compromise, you quickly move to positional negotiation. You will show up with a position to defend, and negotiate with the other party’s position to reach a middle ground. You expect to give up something and the other side to give up something. You cooperate, but within limits, and want to share the wins and losses.
Compromise is a big part of Level 3 Leadership, “The Rationalizer Mode”, because you believe things like, “Give a little to get a little,” or “I can be satisfied with part of the pie.” You’re interested in reaching a solution so everyone can move on. Unlike collaboration, compromise requires trade-offs and exchanges, and it can stifle creative problem-solving and flexibility.
Conflict style #4 is Accommodation. In this mode, you will set aside your personal concerns so the other person can achieve a “win.” When you do this from Level 4 Leadership, you want to serve and support others. Likely, you will yield gladly and take pleasure in helping them fix their problems.
You may, however, accommodate grudgingly, and cater to the other out of fear, expediency, or avoidance. This is more reflective of Level 1 “Victim mode” where “I have no choice”, and can become an unconscious pattern.
Collaboration is the fifth conflict style, and takes the most effort. It requires from you constructive and intentional engagement. Also, you need a high level of concern for a number of goals: your own goals, the goals of the other party, a mutually successful solution to the problem, and the betterment of the relationship. This is where we find true Win-Win opportunities. You expect to win, and you expect the other party to win too.
Research around collaborative styles of conflict resolution is clear. If you learn how to use them, they are extremely effective at generating creative solutions, gaining buy-in and commitment, respecting the interests and feelings of all parties, and strengthening relationships. You can sit on the same side of the table and create opportunities rather than compromises.
Wilmot, William and Hocker, Joyce. Interpersonal Conflict.
Dues, Michael. The Art of Conflict Management.