Nobody likes conflict at work. If not resolved appropriately and within due time, it can fester and affect collective morale, interpersonal relationships, and work productivity. A lot of research has gone into identifying time-efficient and impactful measures for better conflict resolution.
In the 1970s, researchers Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann developed a model for conflict resolution. It was called the Thomas-Kilmann model after them. Under this model, the term ‘conflict’ is described as the condition in which people’s concerns can’t be compared with the others. If two or more people or groups care about things that are contradictory to each other, then the outcome is conflict.
This model describes the two core dimensions while choosing a mode of conduct in a situation of conflict: ‘assertiveness’ and ‘cooperativeness’. Assertiveness is the extent to which you try to solve and resolve for your preferred outcomes. Think of this as the factor on the Y-Axis of a graph. On the other hand, Cooperativeness is the level to which you try to resolve the other party’s problems. This is the factor on the X-Axis of the graph.
Thomas-Kilmann’s five modes for handling conflicts
From the correlation of these two and the scale of implementation, Thomas-Kilmann gave us the following five modes for handling the presented conflicts:
Competing, the first Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode is assertive and non-cooperative. It refers to addressing only one’s own concerns at the cost of the concerns of the other. It is a power-oriented mode—one uses whatever power dynamic seems appropriate to get a favorable outcome for oneself. An individual’s ability to debate, their position in the hierarchy, or their financial power matters the most. Competing is defensive—it strictly means standing up for your individual beliefs and simply trying to win.
According to the Thomas-Kilmann model, the Accommodating mode is both accepting and cooperative. It is the opposite of competing. While accommodating, the individual in question neglects their own problems or beliefs to address the problems of the other party. The element of self-sacrifice is highlighted in this mode. Accommodating typically involves selfless understanding, generosity, or charity. At times, accommodating would require you to follow the other person’s orders when you would not like to do so, or submit to the other’s perspective or decisions.
In the Thomas-Kilmann model, avoiding is both unassertive and uncooperative. The individual wants to neither address their own problems nor the problems of others. This ultimately means that they do not want to engage in the conflict at all. Avoiding might be seen at times as a diplomatic move involving bypassing or ignoring the issue. It could also involve putting off the issue until the time is favorable, or simply stepping back from an uncomfortable or hazardous situation.
Collaborating, the most beneficial outcome in the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model. is both assertive and cooperative. This mode is the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating includes a voluntary effort to work alongside the opposition to find a perfect solution that wholly addresses the collective problem. Collaborating involves deep-diving into an issue to locate the critical demands of the concerned individuals or parties. Collaborating between two or more people might take the form of a quest to understand the ‘why’ of the disagreement. It involves striving to look for creative answers to interpersonal issues and enriching yourself from the other person’s insights.
The last outcome in the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model falls on the average point on both the assertiveness and cooperativeness scales. The goal here is to find a mutually acceptable and robust solution that, in some ways, satisfies both the individuals. It comes midway between competing and accommodating. It addresses an issue more directly than avoiding but falls short of investigating it with as much depth and rigor as collaborating. In certain situations, compromising might involve seeking middle-ground solutions, providing concessions, or looking for a quick solution that provides some way forward from the impasse.
You can learn about the Thomas-Kilmann model in Harappa Education’s Navigating Workplaces course. Leading educators and trainers share tips on how you can use the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode for more productive conflict resolution and work satisfaction.
Explore topics such as Conflict Management Techniques, Characteristics of an Effective Team, Functional and Dysfunctional Conflict, Types of Conflicts in an Organization & How to Manage Crisis from our Harappa Diaries section in order to build trust-rich relationships at work.