Poorly managed workplace conflict is bad for everybody. Problems can go unresolved for years (destroying efficiency) or blow up in morale crushing confrontations. Unresolved conflict leaves an unmistakable wake in any organization that is as unattractive to job candidates as it is to current employees. A 2015 Globe and Mail article “The Long-Term Costs of not Resolving Workplace Conflicts” reports that workplace conflict cost the Canadian economy $16.1 billion in 2012 in employee absenteeism alone.
But workplace conflict is inevitable, right? The short answer is a resounding yes. And it’s not inherently bad. How we handle conflict is what makes the difference, and poorly handled conflict is costly at work.
Depending on the situation, avoiding disagreements can be just as problematic as engaging them head-on. The trick is to learn how to handle conflict in the most appropriate way given the situation.
A tried and true model
The research on how to handle conflict is extensive today, but few ways of looking at conflict offer as much practical usefulness as the one developed by Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s. In their seminal research article “Developing a Forced-Choice Measure of Conflict-Handling Behavior: The ‘Mode’ Instrument,” Thomas and Kilmann identify the following five interpersonal conflict-handling modes: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding and accommodating. The idea is that each of us has a personal fallback conflict-handling style that we tend to run to when tensions rise, but that particular style may not always the best way of dealing with the conflict at hand.
Each of these conflict-handling modes uses different levels of assertiveness and cooperation. For example, Carol may find the collection of porcelain hippos her boss Jim insists on displaying in the break room repellent. Carol’s default conflict style is avoiding. If she persists in avoiding discussing her feelings about the hippos with Jim, they may one day become the proverbial last straw in her sense of workplace comfort. Carol’s colleague Brian, on the other hand, tends to default to a competing conflict style that may set him on a path to direct confrontation with Jim over his own distaste for the hippos, when he asks him to get rid of them as soon as possible.
Both of these “default” approaches are less than ideal. By taking control of which conflict-handling style each of us uses when problems arise at work, we can master avoiding the potential pitfalls of our go-to response. In the case of the porcelain hippos, Brian and Carol might, upon further reflection, decide that compromising is the best option (and, despite this example and what your mom taught you, compromise isn’t always the best way to deal with contentious situations). Perhaps Jim can display the hippos in his office rather than in the break room.
To engage or to avoid?
For workplace conflict, whether it involves office decor or more serious topics like salaries or employee projects, it can be useful to ask “Should I avoid or engage in this conflict right now? What are the possible implications of each course of action?”
While constantly avoiding conflict is usually a problem, avoidance can be useful in some situations, such as when an issue really is trivial (perhaps Jim’s hippos aren’t as big a deal as they seem), or when there are more pressing matters (Carol and Brian are on an important deadline and can’t afford to deal with the hippos until later).
Consciously assessing conflict in this way keeps it from being buried or blowing up to everyone’s detriment.
Finally, simply being aware that your go-to conflict style might not be the most effective one for every situation can be very empowering. Rather than limiting yourself to whatever single preference you find yourself automatically using, you can learn to expand your conflict-handling toolbox and flex your response to suit each individual conflict situation.