Conflict Resolution

Aug. 7, 2009
In most offices, conflict just seems to be a fact of life. The good news is that by resolving conflict successfully, you can solve many of the problems it has brought to the surface, as well as reaping other benefits you might not expect.

Part 1: Moving from Conflict to Clarity

by Fran Pangakis and Shari Tastad

Can anyone make conflict go away?

You walk into the office thinking “business as usual,” and enter your morning huddle. Silence abounds, eye contact is lacking, and verbal sparring begins with little quips here and there. You think, “Here we go again; I hope this issue resolves itself quickly so everyone can settle down.” Amazingly, by noon, people seem to be over it. Unbeknown to you, the issue has been stuffed in a closet for an appearance at a later, even less convenient date.

Resolving conflict to find clarity and team effectiveness
In most offices, conflict just seems to be a fact of life. We've all seen situations where people with different goals and needs come into conflict. We’ve also seen the often intense personal animosity that can result if the issue is not addressed and resolved.

The fact that conflict exists is not necessarily a bad thing. As long as it can be resolved effectively, it can lead to personal and professional growth. In many cases, effective conflict resolution skills can make the difference between positive and negative outcomes. These benefits include:

Increased understanding: The discussion needed to resolve conflict should expand your team members’ awareness of the situation, giving them an insight into how they can achieve their own goals without undermining those of other people.

Increased teamwork: When conflict is resolved effectively, team members can develop stronger mutual respect and a renewed faith in their ability to work together.

Improved self-knowledge: Conflict pushes individuals to examine their goals in close detail, helping them understand the things that are most important to them, sharpening their focus, and enhancing their effectiveness.

However, if conflict is not handled effectively, the team, patient service, and leadership can disintegrate.
Conflicting goals can quickly turn into personal dislike. Teamwork breaks down. Talent is wasted as people disengage from their work. It's easy to end up in a vicious downward spiral of negativity and blame. This negative attitude soon finds its way to the patient and other referral-based relationships you have worked hard on for many years.

If you're to keep your team working effectively, this downward spiral needs to be handled as soon as possible. To do this, it helps to understand two of the theories that lie behind effective conflict-resolution techniques.

TKI: Thomas & Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument
Authors Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann identified five main styles of dealing with conflict that vary in their degrees of cooperativeness and assertiveness. They argued that people typically have a “preferred'” conflict-resolution style. However, they also noted that different styles were most useful in disparate situations. The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) helps you identify which style you have a tendency to use when conflict arises.

Competitive — People who have a competitive style take a firm stand, and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power drawn from things like position, rank, expertise, or persuasive ability. This style can be useful when:

  • There is an emergency and a decision needs to be made fast.
  • The decision is unpopular.
  • Defending against someone who is trying to exploit the situation for selfish means.

However, the competitive conflict-resolution style can also leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied, and resentful when used in less urgent situations.

Collaborative — People with a collaborative style try to meet the needs of everyone involved in the conflict. They are often highly assertive but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important.

This style is useful when:

  • You need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to arrive at the best solution.
  • There have been previous conflicts in the group.
  • The situation is too important for a simple trade-off.

This method is valuable when you can take time to explore all options. However, if time is of the essence, this may not be the preferred style.

Compromising — People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and the leader utilizing this style also expects to relinquish something.

Compromise is useful when:

  • The cost of conflict is higher than the cost of losing ground.
  • Equal strength opponents are at a standstill.
  • There is a deadline looming.

Be careful that you don’t overuse compromise. By constantly compromising, you can loose sight of the long-term vision and lack clarity.

Accommodating — This style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others at the expense of the person’s own needs. The accommodator often knows when to give in to others, but can be persuaded to surrender a position even when it is not warranted. This person is not assertive, but is highly cooperative. Accommodation is appropriate when:

  • The issues matter more to the team members.
  • Peace is more valuable than winning.
  • You want to be in a position to collect on this “favor.”

However, keep in mind that team members may not return the favor, and this approach is unlikely provide the best outcomes.

Avoiding — People with a tendency toward this style seek to evade conflict entirely. This style is typified by delegating controversial decisions, accepting default decisions, and not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. It can be appropriate when:

  • Victory is impossible
  • The controversy is trivial
  • Someone else is in a better position to solve the problem.

However, avoidance is often a weak and ineffective approach to take.

Once you understand the various styles of dealing with conflict, you can use them to think about the most appropriate approach (or mixture of approaches) for the situation you're in. You can also think about your own instinctive approach, and learn how to change it if necessary.

Ideally when conflict arises, you can adopt an approach that:

  1. Meets the needs of the situation.
  2. Resolves the problem.
  3. Respects people's legitimate interests.
  4. Mends damaged working relationships.

Understanding and managing conflict is a powerful leadership tool. Acknowledging that conflict happens is extremely important. The language we use to describe conflict creates the reality. When a situation needs to be resolved, take time to review it and the people involved. Begin to think, “ I am going to find clarity in this situation.”

By moving from conflict to clarity, you will build team members’ trust in the practice.

In Part 2 of this series, we will provide more information about improving relationships during conflict. Until then, welcome conflict as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your team.

Interested in finding out your conflict style? Contact Fran Pangakis at [email protected] or Shari Tastad at [email protected] for more information on conflict resolution workshops.

Fran Pagakis is a certified training and development professional with extensive skills in facilitation, communications, training, coaching, and professional development. She is a certified consultant with the human resource and personnel policy firm Bent Ericksen & Associates, as well as being their lead trainer for Integrated Performance Management (IPM). IPM is a state of the art tool that is used for hiring, team building, leadership development and employee motivation. Fran also coaches other consultants on how to achieve their goals and “make the impossible possible” and is a member of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants.Shari Tastad RDH, BS, is president of Pathways, and brings energy, expertise, business savvy, and a proven results-oriented approach to her work and her clients. Assisting clients in discovering their individual leadership brilliance is her forte’. Shari has worked with hundreds of businesses nationally as a management consultant and business coach, inspiring teams to solidify their visions and achieve greater successes through the five paths offered in her coaching. Shei has 17 years of clinical dental hygiene and 14 years of experience with consulting and coaching.