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.

Discover:

What is conflict management?

Conflict management is the process by which disputes are resolved, where negative results are minimized and positive results are prioritized.

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.

1. Accommodating

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.

Example:
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.

2. Avoiding

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.

Example:

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.

3. Compromising

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.

Example:

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.

4. Competing

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.

Example:

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.

5. Collaboration

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.

Example:

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:

  1. When there is an argument, I will leave the situation as quickly as possible
  2. In conflicts, I discuss the situation with all parties to try and find the best solution
  3. I use negotiation often to try and find a middle ground between the conflicted parties
  4. I know the best path to take and will argue it until others see that I am correct
  5. I prefer to keep the peace, rather than argue to get my way
  6. I will keep disagreements to myself, rather than bring them up
  7. I find it best to keep communication active when there is a disagreement, so I can find a solution that works for everyone
  8. I enjoy disagreements and find satisfaction in winning them
  9. Disagreements make me anxious and I will work to minimize them
  10. I am happy to meet people halfway
  11. It is important to me to recognize and meet the expectations of others
  12. I pride myself on seeing all sides of a conflict and understanding all of the issues involved
  13. I enjoy arguing my case until the other side concedes that I am correct
  14. Conflict does not engage me, I prefer to fix the problem and move on to other work
  15. I don’t feel the need to argue my point of view, it is less stressful to agree with others

Tips:

  • 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.

Summary

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.