Effective Conflict Resolution in the Workplace with Thomas Kilmann Model
Updated: Feb 24
Conflict is a natural part of collaboration. It cannot (and should not) be avoided. According to Myers-Briggs, employees on average spend 2-3 hours a week dealing with conflict. This creates stress and may cause them to leave the organisation.
However, conflict can be reframed to a different narrative - it's an accumulation of energy, if handled correctly, can be turned into fuel to accelerate your teams and products to a new level.
As a leader, understanding the most common conflict dynamics and human responses it creates, will let you better interpret conflict situations within your team and facilitate solutions more effectively.
In 1974 two psychologists, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, developed the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) Conflict Model to help better understand how individuals choose conflict management styles when handling disagreement.
According to Thomas and Kilmann, there are five modes/conflict responses that can be assessed based on scales of assertiveness (how much we focus on our own needs during the conflict) and cooperativeness (how much we focus on other people's needs over our own during the conflict). They are:
Competing is assertive and uncooperative - an individual pursues their concerns at the expense of others. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means "standing up for your rights," defending a position that you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.
benefits: asserting your position, possibility of quick victory, protecting your interests
costs: strained relationships, suboptimal decisions, decreased initiative and motivation, possible escalation and deadlock
Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative - the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of others; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person's order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another's point of view.
benefits: helping someone out, restoring harmony, building relationships, choosing quick ending
costs: sacrificed concerns, loss of respect, loss of motivation
Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative - the person neither pursues their concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus they do not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.
benefits: reducing stress, saving time, steering clear of danger, setting up more favourable conditions
costs: declining relationships, resentment, delays, degrading communication and decision making
Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative - the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the individuals. Collaborating between two or more persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other's insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.
benefits: high-quality decisions, learning and communications, resolution and commitment, strengthening relationships
costs: time and energy required, psychological demands, possibility of offending, vulnerability risk
Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies all parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding it but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.
benefits: pragmatism, speed and expediency, fairness, maintaining relationships
costs: partially sacrificed concerns, suboptimal solutions, superficial understanding
Everyone has a different way of dealing with conflict, but we usually default to 1 or 2 of the modes described by Thomas and Kilmann. Knowing our modes can reduce conflict between people. This can help reduce conflict between teams and the organisation increase productivity, efficiency, well-being not to mention saving money.
Don't avoid conflict. Instead, help your people understand conflict responses and dynamics, increase their self-awareness in conflict situations, and how to give and receive feedback.
References: The Myers-Briggs Company - TKI® conflict resolution model Pivotal Education Understanding the Theory: Conflict Styles USCG 5 Types of Conflict Styles Conflict management style Kilmann Diagnostics
Disclaimer: The Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI) is held under trademark, copyright and owned by Kilmann Diagnostics.