Conflict isn't always painful

Sparring Avoid, accommodate, compromise, compete and collaborate are the five types of conflict which were discussed in depth at a recent YPG SkillCentre master class looking at conflict management. Henry Day reports.

IT management consultant Anthony Rees returned to give the second in a series of SkillCentres for the YPG and it was heartening to see that a significant number of attendees had returned to hear Anthony speak again.

Back in the autumn Anthony had given a very engaging presentation on negotiation skills. For this second presentation Anthony presented an interesting session on conflict management. His assured and charismatic performance quickly established a rapport with the 80, or so, in attendance.

To kick things off, Anthony asked the audience to think about whether conflict is good or bad and invited the room to divide into two groups down these lines. A considerable majority voted for 'conflict is good' but the subsequent discussion revealed that there was less difference between the two camps than first thought.

The 'conflict is bad' camp defined conflict as being something quite distinct from constructive disagreement; having qualities such as 'aggressive' or 'confrontational', leading to valuable working time being wasted.

The 'conflict is good' camp defined the term more broadly to include any disagreement and highlighted the positives such as the need to have one's assumptions challenged. Anthony asked the audience to adopt this broader definition for the remainder of his session.

Most of the evening was given over to a self-assessment exercise using the Thomas & Kilmann model of conflict management. The model categorises methods of dealing with conflict into five types: avoid, accommodate, compromise, compete and collaborate and the questionnaire was designed to see how much affinity we felt with each of those modes.

By knowing which response mode we naturally favour, the idea is to help us recognise scenarios where a different approach might work better. The natural English meanings of these five terms led to some confusion, people finding it hard to separate 'accommodating' from 'compromising', for example, but in fact they are clearly and distinctly defined in the model:

  • 'Avoidance' means to sidestep the problem and might be suitable where the problem is of low importance to both parties, e.g. a personality conflict with someone at work with whom one does not have to work closely.
  • To 'accommodate' the other party's needs in a conflict is to yield your own position in favour of theirs, an example being where a client asks for a change to an agreed specification which is very important to them but can be done at little extra cost to you.
  • 'Competition' is the inverse of accommodation, where you fight your corner and insist on 'winning' the conflict. This might be appropriate if a decision needs to be taken very urgently and there isn’t time to consult more widely and satisfy everyone's concerns.
  • 'Collaboration' is the ideal scenario, given enough time and that the problem itself is not trivial. It means working together to satisfy the concerns of both parties. This is distinct from compromise in that with collaboration neither side has to give anything up.
  • 'Compromise' means both sides yielding part of their position to find a mutually acceptable solution.

Having completed the questionnaire we again divided into groups, joining the group for the response mode in which we'd scored most highly. The remainder of the evening took the form of a discussion, firstly within our groups and then presenting our conclusions to the room. Finally we adjourned for a well-earned finger buffet, wine and networking.

Perhaps the only wish the attendees could have expressed was for more time for the talk itself, however, all seemed to enjoy the evening. Given that most of the evening was devoted to the Thomas - Kilmann model, one question remains: which other models are out there and how do they differ?

Personally, I'd also have liked to have heard something about how conflict management is addressed by formal project management methodologies, such as those promulgated by the PMI and APM.

Anthony Rees returns to deliver another YPG SkillCentre on creative thinking on 23 April

More details regarding his previous SkillCentre on negotiation skills

About the speaker

Anthony Rees is an IT and management consultancy professional, with over 20 years experience of delivering value added consultancy to UK and overseas clients.

He is an MBA graduate of the University of Westminster, London, where he won the prestigious MBA graduate of the year prize. He also holds a DipM MCIM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing, is accredited to Belbin Team Roles, MBTI and DISC, a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and a Fellow of the Institute of Business Consulting.

His ten years in operational, change management and IT management roles in the investment banking sector were followed by a further ten years as an associate director in a UK based niche consultancy servicing investment banking and banking software house clients in the UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa and the USA. This sector has some tough characters and Anthony's skills and approach were developed in this hot house.

His extensive training and development experience were developed in conjunction with his consultancy role. This enabled him to bring the benefits of his 'doing' experience to a 'training' role. His clients include Visa, Nokia Siemens, Capita, Motorola, BT and PSD.

March 2009