Conflict Management Styles
An absolutely essential aspect of being a good leader is understanding how to manage conflicts.
Without an understanding of the five conflict management styles and the correct way to implement them in various situations, a manager is left handling conflict without a guideline.
When trying to come up with quick solutions to problems, often issues are not properly resolved and will resurface down the line.
- What is conflict management?
- The 5 conflict management styles
- Conflict management assessments
- Conflict management styles quiz
- How to manage conflict
What is conflict management?
This key management skill involves using different tactics depending on the situation, negotiation, and creative thinking. With properly managed conflict, an organization is able to minimize interpersonal issues, enhance client satisfaction, and produce better business outcomes.
Workplace conflict does not automatically mean that there are specific employees at fault, although in some cases that will be the issue. If you have employees who question the status quo and are pushing to make changes that they feel would be positive for the organization, that can indicate that your organization has a high level of employee engagement.
Conflict can also mean that employees are comfortable enough to challenge each other and that they feel as though their conflicts will be fairly resolved by the organization.
Conflict management, when done properly, can even increase the organizational learning of an organization through the questions asked during the process.
The 5 conflict management styles
When it comes to conflict, there is no one solution that will work in all situations. Each situation will be different, from the trigger of the conflict to the parties involved.
A manager skilled in conflict resolution should be able to take a birds-eye view of the conflict and apply the conflict management style that is called for in that specific situation.
This style is about simply putting the other parties needs before one's own. You allow them to ‘win’ and get their way.
Accommodation is for situations where you don’t care as strongly about the issue as the other person, if prolonging the conflict is not worth your time, or if you think you might be wrong. This option is about keeping the peace, not putting in more effort than the issue is worth, and knowing when to pick battles.
While it might seem somewhat weak, accommodation can be the absolute best choice to resolve a small conflict and move on with more important issues. This style is highly cooperative on the part of the resolver but can lead to resentment.
Pros: Small disagreements can be handled quickly and easily, with a minimum of effort. Managers can build a reputation as an easygoing person, and employees will know that they can speak their mind about problems without reprisal.
Cons: Managers might be viewed as weak if they accommodate too often. Using this technique with larger or more important issues will not solve any issues in a meaningful way and should absolutely be avoided.
In a marketing meeting, the colors for the new spring campaign are being discussed. Raymond is adamant that choice A is the best choice. Gina thinks that choice B is slightly better, but decides to let Raymond choose the colors, to avoid arguing about two choices that she thinks are both fine.
This style aims to reduce conflict by ignoring it, removing the conflicted parties, or evading it in some manner. Team members in conflict can be removed from the project they are in conflict over, deadlines are pushed, or people are even reassigned to other departments.
This can be an effective conflict resolution style if there is a chance that a cool-down period would be helpful or if you need more time to consider your stance on the conflict itself.
Avoidance should not be a substitute for proper resolution, however; pushing back conflict indefinitely can and will lead to more (and bigger) conflicts down the line.
Pros: Giving people time to calm down can solve a surprising amount of issues. Time and space can give a much-needed perspective to those in conflict, and some issues will resolve themselves. Managers show that they trust employees to act like adults and solve issues.
Cons: If used in the wrong situations, this technique will make conflicts worse. Managers can seem incompetent if they overuse avoidance because employees will think that they are incapable of handling disagreements.
Jake and Amy have been collaborating on the new UX design for weeks. The deadline is looming and they are increasingly unable to agree on changes.
The deadline is pushed back and they both are given the day to work on other projects. The space to take a break from each other, as well as the extra time to complete their project, allows them to cool down and resume in a more collaborative mindset.
This style seeks to find the middle ground by asking both parties to concede some aspects of their desires so that a solution can be agreed upon.
This style is sometimes known as lose-lose, in that both parties will have to give up a few things in order to agree on the larger issue. This is used when there is a time crunch, or when a solution simply needs to happen, rather than be perfect.
Compromise can lead to resentment, especially if overused as a conflict resolution tactic, so use sparingly.
Pros: Issues can be resolved quickly, and the parties in conflict will leave understanding more about the other person’s perspective. Compromise can set the stage for collaboration down the road, and allows both parties to feel heard. Managers using this tactic are seen as facilitating agreement, being hands-on and finding solutions.
Cons: No one leaves completely happy. In some cases, one side might feel as though they sacrificed too much, and be unwilling to compromise again in the future. Managers who rely on this technique will burn up their employees goodwill and be seen as unable to execute collaboration.
Rosa and Charles are in charge of the advertising budget for the next quarter. Rosa wants to hire a full-time social media person, while Charles wants to increase targeted digital ads.
A compromise is reached by hiring a social media person to work part-time, with the remainder of the budget being spent on digital advertising.
This style rejects compromise and involves not giving in to others viewpoints or wants.
One party stands firm in what they think is the correct handling of a situation, and does not back down until they get their way.
This can be in situations where morals dictate that a specific course of action is taken, when there is no time to try and find a different solution or when there is an unpopular decision to be made. It can resolve disputes quickly, but there is a high chance of morale and productivity being lessened.
Note: This is not a style that should be relied upon heavily.
Pros: Managers using this style show that they are strong and will not back down on their principles. Disputes are solved quickly, as there is no space for any disagreement or discussion.
Cons: Managers using this style will be seen as unreasonable and authoritarian. Handling conflicts by crushing any dissent will not lead to happy, productive employees, nor will it lead to finding the best solutions in most cases.
Sophia is the head of her department. Within her staff, she has been dealing with several conflicts. First, Paul and Kevin could not agree on where to hold the annual team-building activity, she stepped in and decided that the department would do an escape room.
Second, Cecile and Eduardo have been fighting over which one of them will have to deal with a particularly difficult client. Neither wants to put in the time and effort and has been arguing that it is the other’s job to deal with it. Sophia decides it is Cecile’s job to handle the client, even though it arguably could be either person’s job.
Third, Alex has come to Sophia several times, asking for permission to change the management of a project that he is running. He thinks that the changes he proposes will make the project much more successful. Sophia will not budge on the way the project is run and tells him to get the job done the way she has ordered him to.
As you can see, in the first example, Sophia made a quick decision to stop a small conflict from escalating or wasting more time. This is an appropriate use of this style.
In the second decision, while she solved an issue, she created another one: Cecile is now resentful. Especially in cases where a boss favors an employee, this type of unilateral decision making will lead to angry employees.
In the third situation, Sophia should not have used the competing style. Not only is Alex now upset that he is not being heard, but Sophia is also missing an opportunity to improve the project.
This style produces the best long-term results, at the same time it is often the most difficult and time-consuming to reach.
Each party’s needs and wants are considered, and a win-win solution is found so that everyone leaves satisfied. This often involves all parties sitting down together, talking through the conflict and negotiating a solution together.
This is used when it is vital to preserve the relationship between all parties or when the solution itself will have a significant impact.
Pros: Everyone leaves happy. A solution that actually solves the problems of the conflict is found, and the manager who implements this tactic will be seen as skilled.
Cons: This style of conflict management is time-consuming. Deadlines or production may have to be delayed while solutions are found, which might take a long time, depending on the parties involved and can lead to losses.
Terry and Janet are leading the design of a new prototype. They are having difficulties, as Terry wants to incorporate a specific set of features. Janet wants to incorporate a different set of features.
To reach a solution, they sit down, talk through each feature, why it is (or isn’t) important, and finally reach a solution, incorporating a mix of their features and some new ones they realized were important as they negotiated.
In each of the above conflict management examples, a solution is found, but there will be lasting effects on morale, productivity, and overall happiness of employees, depending on how that solution was reached. Skilled conflict management is minimizing the lasting effects of conflicts by using the right tactic at the right time.
Conflict management assessments
It can be helpful to understand the style of conflict management that a manager uses.
During the interview process, a conflict management quiz can highlight which prospective employees are effective in their conflict management and resolution, and which need some work.
Generally, a conflict management assessment will ask managers to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how often they would do a specific action.
Using this information, an organization can decide if pursuing conflict management training is necessary. For this type of quiz, there should be between 15 and 30 questions to give a holistic view of the person’s conflict management skills.
Conflict management styles quiz
Rate how often you use the following types of actions on a scale of 1 to 5:
- When there is an argument, I will leave the situation as quickly as possible
- In conflicts, I discuss the situation with all parties to try and find the best solution
- I use negotiation often to try and find a middle ground between the conflicted parties
- I know the best path to take and will argue it until others see that I am correct
- I prefer to keep the peace, rather than argue to get my way
- I will keep disagreements to myself, rather than bring them up
- I find it best to keep communication active when there is a disagreement, so I can find a solution that works for everyone
- I enjoy disagreements and find satisfaction in winning them
- Disagreements make me anxious and I will work to minimize them
- I am happy to meet people halfway
- It is important to me to recognize and meet the expectations of others
- I pride myself on seeing all sides of a conflict and understanding all of the issues involved
- I enjoy arguing my case until the other side concedes that I am correct
- Conflict does not engage me, I prefer to fix the problem and move on to other work
- I don’t feel the need to argue my point of view, it is less stressful to agree with others
- Questions 1, 6 and 9 illustrate an avoidant style
- Questions 5, 11 and 15 illustrate an accommodating style
- Questions 3, 10 and 14 illustrate a compromising style
- Questions 4, 8 and 13 illustrate a competing style
- Questions 2, 7 and 12 illustrate a collaborative style
Add up your scores for each style, and this will show you the styles that you most rely on.
How to manage conflict
1. Be calm and try to establish a dialogue
Remaining calm is a staple of any successful conversation, especially if you’re dealing with contentious issues.
When you’re managing conflicts within the workplace, your demeanor is the first step, how you bond with those dealing with conflict is the next.
It can be difficult to build rapport whilst simultaneously resolving issues, but you’ll find it makes the entire process much easier and helps you bring both sides to reach a resolution that everyone feels good about.
In short, if there’s no dialogue, you have no chance of resolving conflict.
To create this open conversation required to resolve a conflict, you need to empathize with the person you’re speaking to, and create a sort of bond.
While you may not agree with what they’re saying, you can still accept it. Accept their views and opinions for what they are, and move forward with your new insight.
Remember, any kind of conflict, even those in which you’re not involved can be stressful to deal with. As humans, our instinct is to avoid those situations that make us feel uncomfortable and anxious.
However, as the mediator, this is an occasion to which you must rise. Rather than envisioning the problems that may occur, try to create a vision for yourself in which you feel incredible relief and satisfaction at conquering this hurdle.
2. Don’t take any sides
Any conflict can cause hostility, and it’s important to show that you’re a neutral third party. While maintaining a calm demeanor, you should also be careful not to show either party preference.
Even if it seems that one person is right, you need to avoid showing your opinion. Remember, your job is to be a mediator that helps resolve the conflict.
Even when one person becomes frustrated, you must strive to maintain a placid appearance. If you, yourself, become frustrated or impassioned, it will be even more difficult for the people having the conflict to calm down and resolve their differences.
It can be especially hard not to take sides when one of the people involved in the conflict is, themselves, a manager or supervisor.
For instance, an employee may feel as though a supervisor is unfairly targeting them for disciplinary action- their peers are late all the time, but their peers are never spoken to about being late when the employee themselves is always reminded when they’re tardy.
The reason behind this may actually be that the supervisor shows certain employees favoritism- however, it may also be the case that the employee in question has a much longer record of being late (perhaps 5-10 times in their career) while the others have simply been tardy a couple of times.
In some cases, it would be good to bring HR into the conversation, especially when the conflict occurs with an employee’s manager.
In short: remain neutral while you talk to both parties and investigate the issue, even if the problem seems rather forthright in the beginning.
3. Investigate the origins and source of the conflict
This can certainly be one of the most difficult aspects of managing conflict in the workplace. As with any disagreement, chances are that every person involved has their own perspective on what happened, and who is right.
The really difficult task behind this isn’t necessarily defining the action that caused both parties to hit a boiling point- rather, it’s determining what the true issue at hand is, and if there are other things that have led this one point to become a large issue.
For instance, one person may start shouting at a co-worker over delegating the majority of a project budget to software development. However, chances are that the budget isn’t the only issue simmering below the surface for these two co-workers. Project budgets aren’t simple, but they’re rarely the sole reason for an extreme conflict between two people- often, many people are involved in these decisions. In a case like this, one co-worker may feel slighted because the other takes credit for shared work, refuses to do their part of the paperwork, etc. The budget just happens to be the breaking point.
Depending on where the conflict in question takes place, and the duration, you may need to also speak to other employees. Find as many credible sources as you need to in determining the cause.
4. Talk to both sides
For this step, you should talk to both parties separately, in a private place where you won’t be overheard.
Depending on what each party says started the conflict, you may even need to circle back to clarify some parts of the story.
Sometimes you can speak to both parties together, although it’s best to avoid an initial discussion with both people at once. People may not feel comfortable speaking openly with the other person in the room.
You may need to take notes on each person’s version of the conflict. Remember, even though you’re speaking to both people individually, you still need to retain an impartial attitude so neither one feels as though you’re taking sides.
Ask each person what caused the conflict, if there have been past conflicts, and get their opinions on how to resolve the situation and prevent future issues.
After meeting with the employees in conflict, you may also need to discuss the conflict and the plan to resolve it with relevant management members. This keeps everyone informed, and allows managers and supervisors to help ensure each party keeps up their end of the deal.
5. Identify how the problem can be solved
After finding the true origins of the conflict, you need to search for a solution.
In an ideal situation, you can find a solution that suits each party equally well. For instance, if both parties are arguing over desk space, consider moving their placement in the office for an easy resolution. In this case, both parties are expected to move, so neither person feels as though they’re singled out.
In other cases of smaller conflicts, simply having each person apologize and move on can be an agreeable solution.
Unfortunately, finding a mutually agreeable solution isn’t always possible.
This can happen If one employee is clearly instigating conflict, for instance, in such a case you may need to ‘write them up’ or put them on a disciplinary notice or a behavioral performance improvement plan (PIP).
Of course, this all depends on the severity of the conflict (for instance, if an employee is consistently demeaning and disrespectful to others).
It’s a good idea to independently ask each party what they feel an adequate and fair solution would be and try to incorporate each idea into your solution.
6. Try to find a common goal and agree on the solution
While it’s your job to determine the solution, you still need each party to agree to the solution.
This may involve you explaining the benefits of the agreement if one employee is more reluctant. However, as long as you find a fair solution, it should be possible to reason with each party and get them to agree to move forward and work toward a common goal.
Specify what each employee is expected to do as their part of the conflict resolution, so each party will know what the next step is, and what they need to do.
7. Review how the agreed decision was implemented
Now you can gather both parties together and discuss the action everyone will take to resolve the conflict.
It should now be clear what is expected of each party, and why the decision is made.
As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” This is a good way to think of your conflict resolution. Some problems are easier to fix, and others may take a long time. However, you shouldn’t expect everyone to agree and then assume all future problems will disappear.
Plan to check in with each party, and their supervisors (assuming the direct supervisor isn’t involved in the conflict, and if they are, contact higher management and/or HR for their feedback).
Remind each party of their obligations under the original agreement, and ask their opinion of the progress thus far, and if the conflict has truly been resolved.
Asking supervisors after speaking to the two parties in contention can help you get a more unbiased assessment of the progress and whether each person is keeping up their end of the deal.
8. Find how to avoid such conflicts in the future
Every conflict is an opportunity to learn, and to create a better workplace for tomorrow.
The solution you find to avoid future conflicts will depend heavily on the conflict you just helped resolve.
Certain conflicts, such as personal problems between employees (these may extend to, or originate outside of, the workplace) are best resolved by keeping the employees at a distance from one another and having both agree to keep a professional attitude at work.
Other conflicts, such as those over shared spaces or equipment, can be good learning opportunities to avoid similar situations in the future. For example, if two employees have a disagreement about shared company property, consider implementing a sign-up sheet that allows employees to reserve a timeslot to use these resources.
Or, if employees have a conflict over space, you might consider rearranging some parts of the office, when practical, to create a layout that better suits productivity.
Each style is useful, depending on the situation, but as mentioned above, some are weaker than others and should not be relied upon too heavily.
Conflict is an unavoidable reality in the workplace. Smart organizations know this and prepare their management with the proper conflict management skills to handle and resolve workplace conflicts quickly and peacefully.