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Conflict with Colleagues – Tips & Advice

Not getting on with your colleagues? Some tips and strategies!

By Ian Hirst, Greenbank CEO

In today’s more flexible working environment, there is no shortage of opportunities for inter-personal conflict.

In recent weeks just some of the examples our clients have mentioned are…

  • Teams blaming each other for not doing their share of the workload
  • Conflict with a remote manager
  • People finding it difficult to talk about issues – e.g. job security – which would normally call for a face-to-face discussion
  • Sharing workspace at home
  • People not answering emails or delivering on agreements
  • Email and video calls making it difficult to deliver messages with the right nuance
  • ‘Unreasonable’ behaviour from colleagues when you and they are both under stress
  • Salespeople dealing with a stream of requests for discounts
  • Leaders struggling to build engagement and productivity when their team is faced with all of the above!

Of course, none of these issues are new, but the physical and mental stresses we are now all under– make them more disruptive or worse, keep them bubbling below the surface and only manifested in destructive behaviours.

To manage these situations, we need all the skills and motivation we can get to help us through this! One of the approaches we have found useful during this time is the popular Thomas-Kilmann (T-K) Conflict Modes model – because it’s easy during times of stress to fall back on our default approach to conflict – whether that is to fight, concede, avoid, argue or bargain but our default approach which might not be the right for every situation we now find ourselves in.

So – if we can become more aware of our personal ‘default’ approach and build our skills in an increased range of strategies, its no bad thing and the T-K model is pretty straightforward and proven.

This article will briefly introduce you to the T-K model, but if you would like to know more, then we have also put together a 90 mins highly interactive virtual workshop, which we are offering free to our existing clients.

The Thomas-Kilmann Model

The T-K model is based on the belief that in every conflict discussion, there are two main drivers we are faced with:

a) How important is it that WE get everything we want from the situation? T-K label this ‘Assertiveness’
b) How important is it to us that the OTHER PARTY gets everything they want? Described by T-K as ‘Cooperativeness’

This results in 5 conflict styles, each of which have positives when used well in the right situation – and negatives when overused!

Let’s look at these in more detail…

Competing is assertive and uncooperative, where a person pursues their own concerns rather than the needs of the other person. People who tend towards a competitive style take a firm stand and know what they want. They usually operate from a position of power, drawn from things like position, expertise, or persuasive ability.

This style can be useful when there is an emergency and decisions need to be made quickly, when the decision is unpopular, or when defending against someone who has substantially more power than you. It requires clarity and is ideally supported with a consistent assertive verbal style and body language.

However, it can leave people feeling bruised, unsatisfied, and resentful when used in less urgent situations. During home working, this can be a difficult style to be faced with – and a lot easier to ignore unless there is real positional power to back it up!

Individuals over-using a competitive style may develop a reputation for being aggressive, confrontational, or intimidating.

Accommodating is the opposite – ie unassertive and cooperative. Using this style indicates a willingness to meet the needs of others rather than your own needs.

Accommodating is appropriate when the issues matter more to the other party than you, when peace is more valuable than winning, or when you want to be in a future position to collect on this “favour” you are about to give. It requires an ability to concede, which many people find difficult!

However, people may not return favours and often people who are habitual accommodators can find themselves having to have difficult conversations with others as a direct result – e.g. giving a big discount to a client might appease the client, but you may then have a tricky conversation with your own manager to come!

Individuals over-using this style may develop a reputation as weak or a ‘push-over’.

Avoiding

Individuals with an avoiding style choose to neither pursue their own concerns nor those of others. They prefer to avoid conflict rather than deal with it, often diplomatically bypassing or postponing an issue, or simply withdrawing from a confrontational situation.

Avoidance is useful in situations where you are faced with new information and need time to think through your response, where you want to keep the peace – or crucially when a situation might ‘fix itself’ if left alone. It requires a rare ability to ‘leave things be’ which from our experience can also be difficult for some of us!

However, for situations that require immediate decisions, it can result in situations getting worse. In the current remote working situation, it’s far too easy to avoid difficult decisions and we have seen an increasing temptation to leave issues for another time – sometimes resulting in a bigger problem that will be even more difficult to handle going forward.

Consistent users of the ‘Avoiding’ style can develop a reputation as being negligent towards their own or others’ problems. Avoiding a conflict and not dealing with it allows the conflict to flare up later and can trigger negative sentiments and animosities.

Collaborating
People tending towards a collaborative style try to meet the needs of all of the people involved. These people can be highly assertive but unlike the competitor, they cooperate effectively and acknowledge that everyone is important.

This style is useful when you need to bring together a variety of viewpoints to get the best solution, when there have been previous conflicts in the group, or when the situation is too important for a simple trade-off. It requires seeing conflict as a problem solving opportunity rather than a win:lose situation, a real understanding of what’s important both for you and the other party – and a degree of creativity. Because collaboration can require longer discussions, it’s easy of course to bypass this style when you are limited to Zoom or Team calls – and might require a conscious decision to spend time on getting to a creative win:win for key decisions

However, all of this can require a lot of effort and may not be the right style in situations where a quick (if less-than-perfect) decision is required.

If you over-use collaboration, you are at risk of being seen as slow moving and frustrating at times – always wanting to get to the perfect solution!

Compromising
People who prefer a compromising style try to find a solution that will at least partially satisfy everyone. Everyone is expected to give up something, and the compromiser themself also expects to relinquish something.

Compromise is useful when equal strength opponents are at a standoff and when there is a deadline looming – or there are more important issues to spend time on. Key skills here include bargaining – and understanding the relative value of what you are giving up and getting in return!

It can however lead to agreements that don’t satisfy either party – and where with a little bit more time, a better, more creative solution could have been found. As mentioned above, the more transactional nature of virtual meetings can lead to compromises being made too quickly – so one to watch out for!

People who over-use this style can develop a reputation as a ‘wheeler-dealer’ – never sticking to their initial position and always being prepared to move.

And finally…
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 are in. You can also think about your own instinctive approach and learn how you need to change this when necessary.

Ideally you can adopt an approach that meets the situation, resolves the problem, respects people’s legitimate interests and mends damaged working relationships.

Want to know more? Our taster workshop….

We have developed a highly interactive 90 minutes ‘Conflict Management in 2020’ virtual workshop, for 6-10 people, which allows participants to assess their own preferred style and get feedback and coaching in small groups on specific conflict situations. We are offering the workshop free for both existing clients and those of you who have moved roles / organisations and would like would get together a group of colleagues to get a taste of our virtual workshop offering.

Please click here to download an overview of the workshop or contact us if you would like more information.

About Greenbank

Greenbank are an innovative, ‘boutique’ consultancy delivering completely tailored leadership, negotiation and sales development programmes to clients ranging from top 5 global firms to tech start-ups.

We are now delighted to be running truly blended programmes, which make the most of both virtual platforms and interactive face-to-face workshops, to deliver motivational, cost-effective development.

We also have our own industry-leading, multi-lingual, 360° assessment platform, Navigator360 which provides our clients and other training providers with a completely flexible approach to gathering powerful confidential feedback.

If you would like to discuss how we can help your own sales or leadership teams, then we would be delighted to have a relaxed conversation – please contact Ian Hirst or (+44) 7812 074359.