Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conflict Resolution Styles

In Lyssa Adkins' book Coaching Agile Teams she talks about conflict resolution styles, because constructive disagreement is key to working as a team. She refers specifically to the Thomas Kilmann Instrumet (TKI), so I decided to take an online exam to see what my style is (take yours at Since this is a free version I wonder if a paid version would give more analysis; I also had a hard time separating individual conflict with what I do when helping team members deal with conflict amongst themselves... but overall I think these results match my strategy.

Preference: Collaborative Conflict Resolution
Normally I engage others when I see conflict by attempting to collaborate, to find win-win solutions, but if that makes tempers flare, I'll back off, and address the issues one-on-one in private (as represented below in the storm column). Also, when there's conflict, after my attempts to bring attention to it in a non-violent way, if I am clearly hurting someone else, I'll back off and try again later in another way--but my predominant style is to collaborate. Another thing I see in these scores is a strong preference when people are calm, but when that doesn't work, I don't have a strong preference--it shows I'm trying lots of different things to get us to a winning decision, or to avoid causing more harm.

*Test results thanks to

(First preference)

(Preference when issues worsen)



Read more about these five Styles of Conflict Management

Personality Style
While I was in the mood to take online exams, I decided to follow the advice of Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team--to take a Myers-Briggs personality test. I've been talking about how my preference for introversion is getting weaker in favor of extroversion--but hadn't measured it in over a decade.  With this exam (, I found out I'm still more introverted than extroverted, but only moderately so. I'm still an INTJ, which is "Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging"; I also found out I've become less judging, more emotionally in tune, and more spontaneous. This transition probably arose because I've been working on being more empathetic--I find that trying harder to see other people's perspectives makes me a better team player and a better coach. When I set aside my own preferences, in favor of trying to see what other people see, my MBTI profile has changed in a measurable way too.

Conflict Style: There is No Hierarchy
After everyone in your team has taken the test and identified their conflict resolution style, it's probably best not to judge whether any of these conflict resolution styles is better than another. Instead we'd like to just know that's a person's preference, and knowing that can help us understand what's going on when suddenly someone storms out of the room or starts yelling--it's a sign they're perceiving conflict and their style is Avoiding or Forcing, respectively. Another sign of stress could be a team member giving in too easily--showing that he or she is being Accommodating or Compromising because of the stress.

Judging aside, I think that conflict avoidance works in the fewest situations--and so it surprised me that it was my preference in stressful situations. Let me explain a bit more. Often I associate avoidance with passive aggression or depression of one's own needs--but there's another way to look at it. When I'm facilitating a meeting and tempers flare, I often predict it won't end productively, so I focus on de-escalation. The idea is to stop the damaging remarks, and wait until everyone is cool & collected enough to listen to others' perspectives. At home we use this technique with our kids, learned from the years when our children were going through their "terrible twos"; our keyword to trigger this behavior is "disengage!"  It's simple and effective, because we're no longer feeding into the meltdown.

Conflict Style Selection is Situational

While collaboration is most often the conflict style we seek in a self-organizing team, sometimes it's just not fitting. Imagine a medical emergency--we don't want our team to stop and brainstorm about what response would be appropriate-we need someone who is competent to jump into command-and-control lingo and force one person to tend to the injured, delegate the 911 call to someone else, etc. Or even consider a team where a particular technology is only known well by one team member--we'd probably want that person to accommodate the rest of the team's ideas, but to have the final say in any key decisions. By knowing your preferred conflict style, and knowing when it's appropriate and when it's not, you'll be more likely to make the choice consciously the next time you find yourself in a stressful situation!