Conflict at work: what are your options?

Posted 05 October 2022 by
Melissa Summer, The Myers-Briggs Company

4 min. read

If we get caught up in a conflict situation at work, it might feel like all we can do is grit our teeth and push through.
But this response to conflict assumes two things:

  1. Conflict is negative.
  2. here’s not much we can do about it (until we reach a crisis and call a mediator in).

In this blog you’ll see that, with a little thought about how we define it, conflict isn’t necessarily negative. Conflict is often positive and necessary. And you’ll see that you do have choice in how to approach it. 

By becoming aware of different conflict styles within a model for conflict management, you can consciously change your approach to be more effective at handling conflict. Choice creates more possibilities.  

The case for conflict management

New research from The Myers-Briggs Company shows that the average time spent per week on conflict is 4.34 hours. Just over a third of survey respondents said they deal with conflict often, very often, or all the time. And just over a fifth of respondents (22%) felt their manager handled conflict poorly or very poorly.

These high-level findings on the amount of time and strength of feeling associated with conflict suggest that conflict is too significant an issue to be left unchallenged. It’s too important to be left to people’s default methods. 

What can you do? 

Start by turning conflict into something that feels a lot less like conflict. Transform it by understanding it better. Because if we understand it, we can manage it.  

Removing the unknown 

Conflict, at its most basic, is a difference of opinion between two people. But if we expand this definition into something with more bite, we get this: an incompatible difference of opinion about a shared concern.  

In the workplace, it’s usually a difference of opinion about what to do and how to do it. Throw some interpersonal differences (or tensions) into that mix and it’s easy to see how conflict can quickly become a lot more complex. 

But the basic defining point—difference—is a great place to start. It’s why people development professionals use the MBTI® assessment: to raise self-awareness and awareness of others to understand different types, flex behaviors, and work better together. 

The same principle applies to conflict.

Stopping the unconscious habits

In this case, instead of focusing on personality type preferences, we focus on different approaches to conflict. Everyone has their favored approach to dealing with conflict. 

And, just like MBTI preferences that get overused, it’s easy to overuse (or underuse) conflict-handling modes—especially if you aren’t even aware that different modes exist.

This is an unconscious approach to conflict. It’s informed by habit more than awareness and conscious action. And unthinking, habitual behavior doesn’t change or resolve anything.

Building awareness and taking action 

So, how do you know what the different conflict-handling modes are? A study on conflict in innovation by Deloitte referred to the following approaches: dominating, problem solving, compromise, obliging, avoidance. They represent high, medium, and low amounts of ‘respect for self’ and ‘respect for others’.

They’re very similar to the five modes in the TKI® instrument, which are: 

These five modes represent the extent to which a person is assertive (getting their own needs met) and/or the extent they’re co-operative (getting others’ needs met). They’ll all be used by different people, depending on their preferred style. 

One of the keys to better conflict management is to know which modes are being used and whether those modes lead to a desirable outcome in that situation. If the outcome isn’t favorable, a change is needed.  

To make the change, first know that there is a choice. A framework like the TKI assessment shows this—it just takes some awareness. 

And when you have choice, you’ve got possibilities. Conflict looks more hopeful when you can decide which of the conflict-handling modes is best for the situation. 

With choice, you’re empowered to make positive change. 

Want to learn more about choices, behavior, and conflict?


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