Managing Conflict Within Your Team


            Conflict within my team has been one of the harder things to tackle over my tenure as a manager. I have been successful in mitigating many conflicts throughout my career and I understand the necessity for leaders to improve their skills in this area. I have witnessed many leaders ignoring certain workplace conflicts due to a lack of understanding of how to step into them and shut them down. I have seen leaders let conflicts play out, hoping the two employees in conflict will work out their own solution and actually gain a deeper understanding of the other’s viewpoint. This, however, is not the ideal solution because it can get out of hand, escalating into territory that can lead to termination of one employee or both. It is far better for a leader to step in and manage the resolution process. Management needs to understand the best methods to address conflicts and be able to apply the one that will achieve the desired results.

            In my research, I have come across a tool that will help managers implement effective conflict resolution. It is called the “‘Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach’. This type of conflict resolution respects individual differences while helping people avoid becoming too entrenched in a fixed position.”[1] The IBR, which will be presented at the end of the chapter, is only useful to managers if they understand the different types of conflict management styles. This tool utilizes the concepts inherent in a secondary tool, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). This tool helps assess which conflict management style would be appropriate in different scenarios. By educating managers about the benefits and potential weaknesses of different approaches, leaders can make more enlightened decisions and mitigate conflicts more quickly in order to obtain a desired outcome. The TKI helps a leader understand the five styles of conflict management, and “once you understand the different styles, you can use them to think about the most appropriate approach (or mixture of approaches) for the situation you're in.”[2]

            The TKI is an adaptation of Blake and Mouton’s 1964 theory of the managerial grid. This theory is “a model of interrelations among styles of management.”[3] The authors point to five different styles of conflict management and reflect on two dimensions of each style: “concern for people, and concern for production.”[4] The theory postulates that the five different styles are a product of the manager’s combined attitudes of concern for his people and concern for levels of production. The theory places these five styles on a grid with Middle of the Road in the center and Country Club, Team Leader, Impoverished, and Produce or Perish in the four corners of the grid equal distance from the center and each other.



            The theory points out the differences apparent in task-oriented leaders versus people-oriented leaders.  Task-oriented leaders will favor their concerns for production over any concerns for people, whereas people-oriented leaders will let their concern for people outweigh concerns for production. Blake and Mouton are pointing out that managers use a combination of task-oriented and people-oriented approaches depending on their individual style or based on the needs of the situation at hand. As managers weigh these two aspects, the resulting weights of each lead in the direction of one of the five styles.

 The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) adapts Blake and Mouton’s grid, using five conflict management styles −competing, collaborating, avoiding, and accommodating− as the four corners and compromising as the center, in place of Country Club, Team Leader, Impoverished, Produce or Perish, and Middle of the Road. “People are classified into the five styles on the basis of which of the five two-dimensional locations in the grid they psychologically occupy.”[6]



            Evert VandeVliert and Boris Kabanoff researched the effectiveness of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument in identifying a manger’s style of conflict management and discussed it in their 1990 Academy of Management article “Toward Theory-Based Measurements of Conflict Management.”   Their research validated the effectiveness of the TKI. “Support for the MODE'S validity includes demonstrated correlations between the five styles of conflict management and the two underlying dimensions and demonstrated correlations between MODE scores and scores on other, related instruments.”[8] They conclude that the TKI is not perfectly valid, but is highly valid in predicting managerial styles. “A shortcoming of Thomas and Kilmann's MODE is that it discriminates poorly between the important styles of competing and collaborating.”[9]

            Roger Volkema and Thomas Bergmann take another look at the effectiveness of the TKI in their 1995 article published in the Journal of Social Psychology called “Conflict Styles as Indicators of Behavioral Patterns in Interpersonal Conflicts.”   They examine the conflict styles in terms of levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness using the TKI to determine these levels. They determine the different styles based upon the levels that the TKI reports. Collaborating style is determined by high levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness; competing style is determined by high levels of assertiveness and low levels of cooperativeness; accommodating style is determined by low levels of assertiveness and high levels of cooperativeness; avoiding style is determined by low levels of assertiveness and low levels of cooperativeness; and compromising style is determined by medium levels of assertiveness and medium levels of cooperativeness. According to Volkema and Bergmann, “attitudes can affect intentions, but so can subjective norms and perceptions of behavioral control. When an individual has control over behavioral performance, intentions alone are sufficient to predict actions.”[10]

The authors interpret the TKI in terms of a manager’s strategic intentions. They “tested the hypotheses that there are significant relationships between conflict styles, as measured in terms of assertiveness and cooperativeness, and the strategic and tactical use of behaviors in interpersonal conflicts.”[11] They determined that managers are being more assertive when they use the following combinations of leadership styles: Competing with Collaborating, as well as Avoiding with Accommodating. Managers are being more cooperative when they use the combinations of: Collaborating with Accommodating, as well as Competing with Avoiding. In their research Volkema and Bergmann had respondents rate their actions according to first, second, last, or an extreme response, as well as how assertive or cooperative they felt each response was?  The “extreme behavior was the response that reached the highest level of assertiveness or cooperativeness in the reported conflict.”[12] The responses did appear to be tactical in nature and supported the “contention that the Thomas-Kilmann instrument reflects strategic intentions.”[13] According to this study, the TKI does effectively test the levels of assertiveness and cooperativeness employed by mangers and its use strategically in resolving conflicts. They did note that their “findings suggest that the instrument may differentiate more efficiently between assertive orientations than between cooperative orientations.”[14] This conclusion helps explain VandeVliert and Kabanoff’s notion that the TKI has trouble differentiating between competing and collaborating styles due to the Mode’s inefficiency differentiating cooperative orientations. Remember that competing style consisted of high levels of assertive behavior combined with low levels of cooperativeness, whereas collaborating style consists of high levels of assertive behavior combined with high levels of cooperativeness. Since the TKI apparently has difficulty differentiating between high and low levels of cooperativeness, it would be hard to distinguish between collaborating and competing styles. Even with this slight shortcoming, the TKI remains one of “the best-known questionnaires that people can use to describe their perceived use of the grid’s five styles of conflict management.”[15]  

Philip Lop details pros and cons of each of the TKI management styles used in the workplace.  He believes that “recognizing the benefits and weaknesses from each can help managers understand when to adapt their style.”[16] He describes the Competing style as one in which managers only focuses on their own agenda, running over others in the process.  He believes this method fails to get to underlying causes of issues and therefore is ineffective. He does note that this style can be useful if a manager is “required to draw a situation immediately to a halt. If there is a significant level of aggression or particularly childish behavior, a competing style can very quickly bring things to a halt.”[17]  The author notes that the Accommodating style is on the other side of spectrum. It is a style in which managers lose sight of their objectives in an attempt to appease the team. “An accommodator virtually bends over backwards to give people what they want, purely to stop the conflict recurring.”[18] Lop warns against this type of behavior as it may become expected but also notes that it can lead to more agreement in an organization.  Lop does not give any positive spin on the Avoiding style. He notes that leaders who make a habit of avoiding conflict will lose the respect of their subordinates, and points out that an avoided conflict will most likely rear its ugly head again in the future and probably to a worse extent.

The author spends most of his time on Compromising and Collaborating styles; likely because they tend to be the most effective. A collaborating manager tends to try to find common ground within the conflict without losing sight of the manager’s goals which likely are in line with the organization’s goals. Lop points out that this management style “requires far more management time and emotional energy. This is an investment – a manager must be appreciative of the time and effort this will require and the fact that a solution may still not be achieved.”[19]  He then turns to the compromiser and reflects that this type of management style is a blend of all the other styles, which makes sense since it is in the middle of the TKI grid, equidistance from the other four styles.  This style requires managers and subordinates both to back down somewhat and give in on some points. “This is a very diplomatic style so requires a lot of patience and is always best employed by a manager whose only agenda is to get resolution.”[20]  The downside of this style is, once again, that it can be very time consuming, and if the manager compromises too much the desired gains for the organization may be lost.

I found an article that deals exclusively with the avoidance behavior and relates how this type of behavior can be destructive in an organization. Janet Huyser calls this behavior “Conflict Avoidance Syndrome” and it has affected businesses by “Inhibiting discussion about change, preventing confrontations over unacceptable behaviors, [leading to] failed control systems, [a] disregard for policies, missed project budgets and schedules, [and] ultimately both the leadership and group become powerless.”[21] She relates manager’s avoidance of conflict as a result of fear of becoming immersed in an uncomfortable confrontation. She does say that sometimes it can be the right thing to avoid a conflict; but, in my opinion, only to re-address it later when tempers are more stable. She points to the TKI as a tool that can help mangers define their needs in relation to the needs of the group and come up with a viable strategy to mitigate the conflict. She suggests that

The predominately competing group or individual could be more successful at building the synergy of team effort if they focus on learning when to collaborate, when to compromise, and even when to avoid conflict. The avoiding group could learn to address problem areas more effectively by making conscious choices about their behavior when their interests are not being served. The group that uses only collaborating could become more efficient. The compromising group could meet their goals more effectively by identifying and standing up for their own needs.[22]

Her analysis wraps up my research into TKI and the managerial grid. With a better understanding of the different approaches to managing conflict, managers can decide the best approach for a given situation or conflict and go into it with confidence.

I have attached the ‘Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach’ exercise below that helps managers utilize their realizations regarding leadership styles that the TKI points in the direction of. It is essential that leaders understand the TKI before embarking on this approach. Without it, the manager may choose the wrong approach, not really understanding how each of them work. It is suggested that along with employing this tool managers adhere to the following six rules in their approach to conflict resolution:

•Make sure that good relationships are the first priority: As far as possible, make sure that you treat the other calmly and that you try to build mutual respect. Do your best to be courteous to one-another and remain constructive under pressure.

•Keep people and problems separate: Recognize that in many cases the other person is not just "being difficult" – real and valid differences can lie behind conflictive positions. By separating the problem from the person, real issues can be debated without damaging working relationships.

•Pay attention to the interests that are being presented: By listening carefully you'll most-likely understand why the person is adopting his or her position.

•Listen first; talk second: To solve a problem effectively you have to understand where the other person is coming from before defending your own position.

•Set out the "Facts": Agree and establish the objective, observable elements that will have an impact on the decision.

•Explore options together: Be open to the idea that a third position may exist, and that you can get to this idea jointly.[23]

Attached is the Interest-Based Relational (IBR) Approach exercise.  [24]

[1] “Conflict Resolution, Resolving Conflict Rationally and Effectively.” Mind Tools. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 10 Oct 2011.   <>

[2] Ibid. 1.

[3] Van de Vliert, Evert, and Boris Kabanoff. “Toward Theory-Based Measurements of Conflict Management,” Academy of Management Journal. 33/1. (1990): 199.

[4] Ibid. 199.

[5] “Blake Mouton Managerial Grid, Balancing Task- and People-Oriented Leadership” Mind Tools. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 12 Oct 2011. <>.

[6] Van de Vliert, Evert, and Boris Kabanoff. “Toward Theory-Based Measurements of Conflict Management,” Academy of Management Journal. 33/1. (1990): 199.

[7] Ibid. 200.

 [8] Ibid. 201.

[9] Ibid. 206.

[10] Volkema, Roger J., and Thomas Bergmann. “Conflict Styles as Indicators of Behavioral Patterns in Interpersonal Conflicts.” Journal of Social Psychology. 135/1. (1995): 5.

[11] Ibid. 7.

[12] Ibid. 9.

[13] Ibid. 9.

[14] Ibid. 12.

[15] Van de Vliert, Evert, and Boris Kabanoff. “Toward Theory-Based Measurements of Conflict Management,” Academy of Management Journal. 33/1. (1990): 201.

[16] Lop, Philip. “The Pros and Cons of Different Management Styles to Deal With Conflict in The Workplace.” (2010):1. Web 8 Oct 2011.

[17] Ibid. 1.

[18] Ibid. 1.

[19] Ibid. 2.

[20] Ibid. 2.

[21] Huyser, Janet. “Avoiding Conflict Can Undermine Leadership.” Grand Rapids Business Journal. 16/28. (1998): 19.

[22] Ibid. 19.

[23] “Conflict Resolution, Resolving Conflict Rationally and Effectively.” Mind Tools. Mind Tools Club, n.d. Web 10 Oct 2011.   <>

[24] Ibid. 1.

Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:06 PM
Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:06 PM
Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:07 PM
Robert Pannell,
Dec 18, 2011, 8:07 PM