Resolving conflict isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach

Alan came to me with a simple question: How can I influence people?

Alan works in procurement for his company and had been recently promoted to a director role. This new role requires managing budgets across the organization, and he was running into some challenges.

“I have KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and deliverables. I have to influence people to help me reach what I need to accomplish,” he said.

His goals are often at odds with others’ goals, and he wants to be able to push back, negotiate, and “win.” As it stands, he was running into conflict, wasn’t winning as much as he’d like, and wasn’t making many friends, either.

I encouraged Alan to think more broadly and include his long-term goals at his organization in his thinking. Was his approach to conflict resolution serving those goals? Could other approaches better serve his needs – and those of his colleagues?

We started answering those questions by examining a different, more nuanced way to look at conflict: the ​​Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model.

Five ways to approach conflict

The ​​Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model invites leaders to think about approaches to conflict on an X-Y axis, with “assertive” on one side, and “cooperative” on the other. Some approaches — like “avoiding” – are unassertive and uncooperative, and result in a lose/lose for both parties because no action is taken. Others, like “collaborating,” are both highly assertive and highly cooperative, and deliver win/win results for both parties. “Compromising” is both mid-assertive and mid-cooperative, and leads to a yield/yield result, meaning both sides lose a bit in order to achieve resolution.

There are five approaches total in the model: competing, avoiding, compromising, collaborating, and accommodating. One approach is not superior to the others. They each fulfill different needs.

I asked Alan to consider his approach to conflict in his new role. He was approaching every interaction with a “competing” mindset, which is high on assertiveness and low on cooperation. This is an “I win/You lose” approach. He tries to win every conflict, but is it the right approach for every interaction?

He smiled broadly. “I’m having an ‘aha!’ moment,” he said.

“No wonder I’m having all these interpersonal problems and people don’t want to talk to me,” Alan realized. “I’m thinking I need to influence them, but in reality, I’m just trying to compete. I end up winning but losing a lot.”

No more one-size-fits-all approach

As we explored the characteristics of each approach in the model, Alan realized his role requires nuance. Some situations may benefit from an accommodating approach, which is high on cooperation, but low on assertiveness, with an “I lose/you win” result. It’s useful in situations in which the other person’s goals are more important to them than yours are to you. It helps preserve harmony and build trust.

“Some of the things I’m fighting for aren’t really that important,” Alan said. “Sometimes I should just avoid them because it’s just not worth it.”

The collaborating approach may require more effort, but it results in an integrative solution, incorporating others’ concerns into a consensual decision. If Alan is looking to build positive, long-term relationships across his organization, collaborating may be a smart choice.

CompetitionAlan also realized that his default competing approach isn’t wrong, it’s just not right all the time. He may need to employ the approach when having to take quick, decisive action, for example.

Results-driven leaders often believe achieving their goals should be a top priority, and, like Alan, that winning matters most, no matter the long-term impact. But, effective leadership requires thought, care, and consideration. When encountering conflict, measure your needs against others’ and consider the long-term impact on the relationship. Choose your approach thoughtfully, and don’t just focus on winning. That’s how leaders can have real influence.

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