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How do you manage conflict?

No two people are exactly alike. And this uniqueness guarantees at least one thing: There will always be conflict. Since we all tote the baggage of our personal values, experiences, beliefs and perceptions with us everywhere, there's always the chance that our values will clash with those of someone else. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, and the workplace is no exception. That's what makes effective conflict management an essential skill for any successful manager.

Conflict, itself, isn't a bad thing. It's what naturally occurs when two or more people vie for the same physical, psychological or emotional space at the same time. Disagreement can, in fact, be a healthy and creative exercise in the growth and development of an individual, team or project and can ultimately strengthen work relationships. Trouble erupts, though, when conflict goes unmanaged and unresolved. Therefore, a manager's goal should not be to eliminate all conflict, but to minimize or redirect dysfunctional discord by seeking and applying constructive resolutions.

"Whether the outcome of [a] conflict issue is positive or negative is almost totally determined by the way it is managed," say Bil and Cher Holton, authors of The Manager's Short Course: A Complete Course in Leadership Skills for the First-Time Manager (John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York, 1992.) Every person handles conflict differently. Managers must learn to recognize and gauge their own conflict management style, as well as those of their staff, to ensure productive performance. To assess how you cope "when push comes to shove," complete the "Conflict Styles Questionnaire" and plot your responses at the end. Your answers might surprise you.

Actively Managing Conflict

Why not let individual "flash fires" burn themselves out? Because ultimately, the physical, psychological, emotional and financial toll they take on a company and its employees can be tremendous. "Managers spend about 40% of their time refereeing conflict," says Bill Hendricks, curriculum director for Oberlin Park, Kan.-based National Seminars Group, an industry leader in adult business management training. "That's a lot of time spent dealing with issues that retard progress, productivity, support and cooperation," continues Hendricks, who created the conflict and anger management seminar offered by his firm.

Each of us has access to several conflict management styles that we use to mitigate friction. One person might opt for any means of avoiding confrontation, while another will choose to meet battles head-on. Too many people operate out of one preferred conflict style, excluding other styles that could be more appropriate in a given situation.

Managers must first recognize the modus operandi of their team (and themselves) before they can more effectively coach their staff in methods of purposeful and productive problem-solving and conflict resolution. "The goal is for the parties involved to move from some form of compromise to ultimate collaboration marked by a shared success," says Bil Holton.

In assessing your questionnaire results, ask yourself the following questions:

* How do my questionnaire results compare with my perception of how I manage disagreement and resolve conflict?

* Based on my profile, what are my strengths and weaknesses? What is my dominant conflict-management style?

* As I recollect, what are some specific instances when I have successfully resolved conflict?

* My unsuccessful attempts to manage disagreement are usually marked by what types of behavior?

* How can I use what I have discovered about the differences in conflict-management styles to choreograph team support at work?

According to the Holtons, there are five generally accepted styles for dealing with conflict: avoidance, accommodation, collaboration, compromise and competition. Nothing is inherently right or wrong with any of these styles. Each can be appropriate and most effective, depending on the situation, issues to resolve and personalities involved.

* Competing is an aggressive and totally antagonistic style. A "competitor" pursues his or her own views at a colleague's expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which a group member uses whatever means seem appropriate to win. Competing could mean "standing up for your rights," defending a position that you believe is correct, or demonstrating a win-at-all-costs attitude.

* Accommodating is an unassertive, self-sacrificing, and hospitable style that is in direct opposition to competing. Colleagues who use this approach relinquish their own concerns to satisfy the concerns of another employee. Accommodating usually takes the form of selfless generosity or blind obedience and yielding completely to another's point of view.

* Avoiding is an unassertive, side-stepping and retreat-oriented conflict management style. An "avoider" generally chooses to dodge conflict at all costs. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically side-stepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation (emotionally, physically or intellectually).

* Collaborating is a more cooperative, synergistic, multilateral conflict resolution style. Collaborators find mutually satisfying solutions. They dig into an issue to identify underlying issues and find mutually satisfying Band-Aids or remedies. Collaboration involves demonstrating musketeer like team focus, agreeing not to compete for resources and using confrontation to find creative solutions to mutually engaging problems.

* Compromising involves finding expedient, mutually acceptable solutions that partially satisfy both parties. Compromising means that both parties "split the difference" in order to settle disagreements. It might mean exchanging concessions or seeking quick, middle-ground solutions.

When used appropriately each of these styles can be an effective approach to conflict resolution. Any one style or a mixture of the five can be used during the course of a dispute to arrive at the collaboration and compromise required for ultimate agreement. Conflict may be unavoidable, but the anger, grudges, hurt and blame that often ensue from it are not. Once managers uncover their own ability to resolve conflict, and discover how a particular conflict-management style motivates their staff, the art of creative fighting can become a more productive, less stressful people-moving skill.

The quiz and five conflict management styles exerpted from The Manager's Short Course: A Complete Course in Leadership Skills for the First-Time Manager by Bil and Cher Holton, 1992, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Reprinted by permission.


Each question contains two statements that describe how people deal with conflict. Distribute five points between the two statements for each question. The statement more like the way you would respond should receive the higher number of points.

For example, if reaction A strongly describes your behavior. 5 a. 0 b.

However, if a and b are both characteristic, but b is a little more characteristic of your behavior than a, 2 a. 3 b. 1.___ a. I am most comfortable letting others take responsibility for

solving problem.

___ b. Rather than negotiate differences, I stress those points

upon which agreement is obvious.

2.___ a. I pride myself in finding compromise solutions.

___ b. I examine all the issues involved in any disagreement. 3.___ a. I usually persist in pursuing my side of an issue.

___ b. I prefer to soothe others' feelings and preserve


4.___ a. I pride myself in finding compromise solutions.

___ b. I usually sacrifice my wishes for the wishes of a colleague. 5.___ a. I consistently seek a colleague's help in solution-finding.

___ b. I do whatever is necessary to avoid tension. 6.___ a. As a rule, I avoid dealing with conflict.

___ b. I do whatever is necessary to avoid tension. 7.___ a. I postpone dealing with conflict until I have had some time

to think it over.

___ b. I am willing to give up some points if others give up some


8.___ a. I use my influence to have my views accepted.

___ b. I attempt to get all concerns and issues immediately out in

the open.

9.___ a. I feel that most differences are not worth worrying about.

___ b. I make a strong effort to get my way on issues I care about. 10.__ a. Occasionally I use my authority or technical knowledge to

get my way.

__ b. I prefer compromise solutions to problems. 11.___a. I believe that a group can reach a better solution than any

one person can working independently.

___b. I often defer to the wishes of others. 12.__ a. I usually avoid taking positions that would create


__ b. I'm willing to give a little if a colleague will give a little,


13.__ a. I generally propose middle ground as a solution.

__ b. I consistently press to "sell" my viewpoint. 14.__ a. I prefer to hear everyone's side of an issue before making


__ b. I demonstrate the logic and benefits of my position. 15.__ a. I would rather give in than argue about trivialities.

__ b. I avoid being "put on the spot." 16.__ a. I refuse to hurt a colleague's feelings.

__ b. I will defend my rights as a group member. 17.__ a. I am usually firm in pursuing my point of view.

__ b. I'll walk away from disagreements before someone gets


18.__ a. If it makes colleagues happy, I will agree with them.

__ b. I believe that give-and-take is the best way to resolve any


19.__ a. I prefer to have everyone involved in a conflict generate

alternative together.

__ b. When the group is discussing a serious problem I

usually keep quiet.

20.__ a. I would rather openly resolve conflict than conceal


__ b. I seek ways to balance gains and losses for equitable


21.__ a. In problem solving, I am usually considerate of colleagues'


__ b. I prefer a direct and objective discussion of any


22.__ a. I seek solutions that meet some of everyone's needs.

__ b. I will argue as long as necessary to get my position heard. 23.__ a. I like to assess the problem and identify a mutually

agreeable solution.

__ b. When people challenge my position, I simply ignore them. 24.__ a. If colleagues feel strongly about a position, I defer to it

even if I don't agree.

__ b. I am willing to settle for a compromise solution. 25.__ a. I am very persuasive when I have to be to win in a conflict.


__ b. I believe in the saying, "Kill your enemies with kindness." 26.__ a. I will bargain with colleagues in an effort to manage


__ b. I listen attentively before expressing my views. 27.__ a. I avoid taking controversial positions.

__ b. I'm willing to give up my position for the benefit of the


28.__ a. I enjoy conpetitive situations and "play" hard to win.

__ b. Whenever possible, I seek out knowledgeable colleagues

to help resolve disagreements.

29.__ a. I will surrender some of my demands, but I have to get

something in return.

__ b. I don't like to air differences and usually keep my concerns

to myself.

30.__ a. I generally avoid hurting a colleague's feelings.

__ b. When a colleague and I disagree, I prefer to bring the issue

out into the open so we can discuss it.
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Author:Baskerville, Dawn M.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:May 1, 1993
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