The avoiding culture in many organizations

Posted 09 August 2012 by
Ralph Kilmann
The avoiding culture

Many organizations seem to have a strong avoiding culture, which can best be investigated using the TKI, along with a specific change in TKI administration instructions. Instead of asking members to respond to the 30 forced-choice items in general terms, per the official TKI instructions, I provide these modified instructions: “Inside this organization, when you find your wishes differing from those of another person, how do you usually respond?”

What is the impact of this change in instructions? Rather than a person’s responses to the TKI assessment being an average of all the conflict situations she faces (which, for example, can vary significantly between home and work), with the modified instructions, her responses on the TKI assessment are specifically geared to her behaviour in the workplace. When I then average the raw TKI scores of groups, departments, and the whole organization, I usually find that avoiding is in the top 25%, suggesting that it is being used too much, while one or more of the assertive modes (collaborating, competing, and compromising) are in the lower portion of the TKI profile and thus being used too little.

As a sharp contrast to this finding, on a second TKI assessment I ask the same people to respond to these instructions: “Outside this organization, when you find your wishes differing from those of another person, how do you usually respond?” When I average the results from these modified instructions by group, department, and the whole organization, I am no longer surprised to find that members have more balanced profiles, and, in fact, the avoiding mode may even be in the low 25% on the TKI profile, while the more assertive modes often appear in the middle 50% or high 25%.

This consistent finding from two different TKI assessments – with the two different sets of instructions – suggests that the culture in the organization has taught people to avoid confronting others, even on matters that are very important to both the organization and its members. And the avoiding culture might also be reinforced by a reward system that penalizes people who confront their managers, as witnessed by who gets special assignments, bonuses, favours, and promotions.

But once the members of the organization, including senior managers, have become aware of the avoiding culture that prevails in different departments and levels in their organization, a very meaningful discussion can unfold: “What are the long-term consequences if we continue avoiding the most important issues facing our organization because our culture and reward system have conditioned us to keep issues and problems to ourselves?” The responses to this question then open up the vital topic that needs to be addressed with a great deal of assertiveness: “How can we purposely change our culture and reward system to support the use of all conflict modes, so we can bring about long-term satisfaction and success?”

To drive home this point, I make use of an organization chart and fill in each box with the TKI Conflict Model. For each group, department, and division in the organization, I then highlight which one or more modes are in the high 25% (by placing larger circles on the TKI Conflict Model within each box) and which modes are in the low 25% (by placing smaller circles in the appropriate locations on the model). This conflict mode organization chart is an eye-opener! Sometimes, only the lower levels are high on avoiding. But other times, even the top managers (and all the boxes from top to bottom on the chart) are high on avoiding!

Keep in mind: Unless the TKI’s instructions are modified to specifically ask people about their responses to conflict in their work situation, an organizational assessment with the TKI tool might not be accurate, since employees may have responded to the tool with a great variety of other conflict situations in mind. But modifying the instructions to reflect a specific setting thus provides a more accurate – and thus more meaningful – diagnosis.

Ralph H. Kilmann, PhD, is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh – which was his professional home for 30 years. He earned both his BS degree and MS degree in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University (1970) and a PhD degree in management from the University of California, Los Angeles (1972). Kilmann is co-author of the TKI assessment and has published more than twenty books and one hundred articles on conflict management, problem management, organizational design, change management, and quantum organizations.

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