Conflict Resolution & Management using Thomas Kilmann Model

Working in teams is essential in our business and work lives. Teamwork and Collaboration are well established as key elements in making organizations and individuals succeed.

A natural occurrence when working in teams is the emergence of conflicts. Well, of course! There are people in teams with different personalities, thoughts, and expectations that lead to one or the other conflict. Tuckman's stages of team development mention this in the 2nd stage i.e. Storming (ream more here).

Photo by Yan Krukov from Pexels

The important thing however is to learn to deal with conflicts. Individuals and teams that are most successful are the ones with the ability to 'manage' conflict well. No, they don't totally avoid them. They look at the positive side of conflicts i.e. challenging, critiquing, debating, questioning, brainstorming, and optimizing solutions.

Here we will discuss one of the most trusted and renowned conflict resolution model which was devised by Dr. Kenneth Thomas and Dr. Ralph Kilmann in the 1970s.

The model aligns behaviors of individuals on two dimensions or axis: Assertiveness & Cooperativeness. Assertiveness is about putting across your own point and trying to get buy-in on it. Cooperativeness is about understanding and accepting the other person's point and be bought into that.

These two dimensions of behavior when plotted on a graph on the x-axis and y-axis can be the basis of 5 modes of dealing with conflicts. Let's look at each of them in detail.

5 modes of handling conflicts

1. Avoiding

The best way to deal with conflict is not to deal with it, is the premise of those who avoid conflicts. However, it is certainly not true for all sorts of conflicts. When one neither puts their own opinions forward and is neither open to listening to others, they are using 'avoiding' as a way of dealing with a conflict. It may be a useful strategy in threatening situations, however is definitely not the best one. Long-term avoidance of conflicts creates aloofness and distance in relationships and stagnates progress. 

2. Accommodating

If you put the needs and opinions of others above yours in situations of conflict, then you can find yourself 'accommodating'. In this approach of conflict resolution, one is cooperative but not assertive. Situations, where it might work, include a new team, and when the other party is at a much higher power position. However in the long run the person accomodating might be taken for granted and may not get anything in return. People may take undue advantage of the person who generally accommodates.

3. Competing

In simple words is my way or the highway approach to conflicts. There is strong assertiveness but a lack of cooperativeness to even listen to other's views. It may work in a situation where one needs to protect their rights or taking a stand for the right cause. However, if someone always competes they may come across as unapproachable, and too difficult to work with. People tend to maintain a distance from those who only compete.

4. Compromising

If you prefer walking out of a conflict with something if not all, with a tradeoff by giving something to the other party, you might be compromising. In this scenario, while there is both assertiveness and cooperation, the degree to which a solution is reached is only partially satisfactory to both parties and fully satisfactory to none. It is in a way a step ahead of avoiding, a short-term solution, however, lacks the Complete Win that Collaborating style brings. 

5. Collaborating

To come up with solutions that benefit all parties, through brainstorming, active listening, and open discussion is the mode of collaborating. While it sounds ideal it is very much a  practical way of handling conflicts, especially when working in teams and organizations. Both the aspects of assertiveness and cooperativeness need to be practiced by all people involved and they would through the power of collective effort would be able to collaborate beautifully. That's what great teams do, and what great leaders do.

You can actually find out your dominant conflict resolution style by using the Thomas Kilmann Instrument. All of the 5 modes of handling conflicts are acceptable styles that one may prefer. There is no right or wrong. Yes, of course, the collaboration style is the preferred one and we can strive to move towards it.