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Conflict Resolution One size does not fit all By Robert Tanner My new boss is the one who should be attending this training! I still remember “Marty” and his protest. It occurred as I began to facilitate a training session on conflict resolution for a group of technical, midcareer professionals. Like the others, Marty had his advanced degree. He had also held a series of increasingly responsible engineering jobs that often involved leading project teams. He distinguished himself in this work with his combination of people and technical skills. During his career, Marty had a talent for obtaining the cooperation of resistant people. As I worked with the group, I learned more about Marty’s negative feelings about his new boss. Marty had left his old firm for a promotion to the Vice President level at a new company. For the first year, everything seemed fine. Now, however, Marty was starting to feel like a fish out of water. Marty explained that he worked effectively with his peers and with his team. He felt his biggest challenge came from his improvising and forceful boss. As he explained, his boss was starting to interfere in departmental operations and to question his methods for achieving organizational objectives. Marty’s boss felt Marty did not handle organizational conflict effectively. His boss felt Marty spent too much time conferring with people. Whenever Marty tried to explain the reason for his approach, his boss just seemed annoyed. Marty was beginning to regret ever taking the promotion. What Marty wanted most was for his boss to get out of his way and let him work with his team and his peers. He felt his boss needed to be less directive and more collaborative. Marty was sure that his boss’s behavior was the biggest obstacle to his success in this new role. Marty’s problem was not his boss, however! What was Marty not understanding about conflict resolution? First, Marty did not understand the complexity of organizational conflict. Conflict is a clashing or competition of opposing or incompatible ideas, interests, or wills.1 It involves beliefs, values and emotions. Conflict is disagreement. Conflict always occurs in organizations. At the higher levels of management where the organizational stakes are more consequential, conflict is more prevalent. For Marty, this meant he needed a strategic approach to conflict resolution. Second, Marty’s difficulties came from his one-size-fits-all approach to conflict resolution. While collaborating is rightfully a preferred approach for many organizational conflicts, it is not a panacea. Marty did not realize that even collaborating had its limitations. Where conflict resolution was concerned, Marty was like a carpenter showing up to a construction worksite with only one tool in his toolbox. Marty’s overuse of collaborating came from his lack of knowledge of the work of Dr. Kenneth Thomas and Dr. Ralph Kilmann. With their popular Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), they popularized the knowledge that there are five styles for resolving conflict. As they explained, an individual’s response to conflict occurs on two dimensions, assertiveness (the length an individual will go to satisfy her/his concerns) and cooperativeness (the length an individual will go to satisfy the other party’s concerns).2 Marty learned that there are five conflict resolution styles as follows: collaborating (win-win solution); avoiding (let sleeping dogs lie); accommodating (let’s do it your way); competing (do it my way) and compromising (everyone has to give a little). Effective conflict resolution requires a strategic assessment of the situation and the people involved in the conflict.3 Marty frequently used a collaborating style to resolve disagreements with others. To make better use of the organization’s limited time and money, Marty needed to use the competing style as well. Finally, Marty also recognized that he needed to adapt his communication style for his new organizational culture. His indirect methods of communicating worked well in his previous organization where consensus and cordiality were important. It was not working as well in his new organization where quick and decisive decision-making were valued. In fact, his frequent use of indirect communication methods was weakening his leadership image. This was particularly true of his communications with his boss. So, what happened at the end of the session? As we ended the day’s activities, Marty made a final comment to me as he exited the room. He said, “I guess I have some work to do. I’ll have to assert myself more.” As he spoke, I saw the steely look of determination in his eyes, and I felt the power behind his words. It was then that I knew that Marty would succeed. I also felt that Marty’s boss had misunderstood him. Marty’s boss viewed Marty’s collaborative nature as a weakness. Marty was not weak, however. Marty just did not know that he needed to adapt for this new organization. Marty obtained a new and improved attitude about conflict resolution. What about you? Are you using the appropriate conflict resolution style as you work with your boss, your peers, and your team? PE Notes 1 Webster’s third new international dictionary of the English language unabridged with the seven language dictionary; in 3 vols. (1986). Chicago: Merriam-Webster. 2 Sample TKI Report. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2014, from http://www.kilmanndiagnostics. com/sites/default/files/TKI_Sample_Report.pdf. 3 Tanner, R. (2014, May). Organizational Conflict: Get Used to It and Use It. Retrieved from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KBUYZCS. Robert Tanner is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, based in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the popular leadership blog, Management is a Journey. He helps managers with the people side of the business focusing on leadership and management development, interpersonal effectiveness, team building, change leadership, and behavioral and organizational assessment. Email info@businessconsultingsolutionsllc.com 28 Submit your Articles Personal Excellence essentials presented by HR.com | 10.2014


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