The way in which a conflict is expressed and communicated amongst colleagues in the workplace is an important element that will help to determine the outcome of the conflict, and whether it contributes positively or negatively to the work environment and its productivity. In this month’s newsletter I explore some contemporary research about conflict expression, and how individual conflict styles play a role in bringing about different forms of expression. These connections lead us to some insights about key decisions that can be made, especially by leaders, to influence workplace conflicts and their effects.
New York Times business writer Phyllis Korkki recently published a piece on diffusing discord in the office by being “direct and low key.” In it, she references a paper in the Academy of Management Review which, according to Korkki, states that “it’s not just the nature of a disagreement but the way it is expressed that leads to a positive or a negative result at work.”
In other words, the process of the conflict itself is likely to have a very significant effect on the outcome, perhaps as much or more than just the content of the conflict, depending on the situation. Playing this insight out, the paper outlines four main categories of conflict expression demarcated by the directness of the communication and the intensity of the expression. According to Korkki and the American Management Review paper, the best combination for productive workplace conflict is a “high directness/low intensity” expression. In this scenario the problems or disagreements are communicated in a straightforward manner, but without the communicative intensity which tends to make them feel personal or threatening to everyone involved. You might still end up with elaborate debates, but it’s more likely to engender a positive, productive outcome, or at least avoid the vagaries of escalation or personal attacks.
This is an essential insight, but recognizing that “high directness/low intensity” might be the best approach for workplace tensions is only half of the solution. Putting it into practice is more challenging.
The fact is, this ideal form of conflict expression is going to come more easily and more immediately to some people than others, and for a variety of reasons. It’s one thing to recognize in hindsight how a conflict turns out for worse or for better; it takes an additional, healthy degree of reflection to make choices during the conflict that might steer it in a more desirable direction. And it takes the latter to realize and dictate a particular, chosen form of expression. One way to augment this capability is to become aware of not only the form of expression you desire (e.g. direct and low intensity), but also to cultivate an understanding of you and your colleagues’ conflict “styles.”
A conflict style is an individual’s habituated response to conflict situations. We all respond to conflict differently, and we have our own reasons for doing so. It might be something deep, related to personality or socialization, or it might come from a set of particular experiences at work or home in which someone learned a strategy for surviving conflicts in that environment. It’s important to recognize that more often than not there’s an understandable origin to everyone’s conflict style. Immediately indicting someone’s conflict style without trying to understand his or her impulses isn’t likely to foster much progress. Rather, understanding is more likely to create the space needed for people to engage with their own conflict styles and make changes if needed.
Conflict styles have been widely studied, and there are a number of general inventories that can help us conceptualize and recognize different responses to conflict. The most well known is the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument(TKI), which maps conflict styles on a graph with “Assertiveness: Concern for Self” running up the Y-axis and “Cooperativeness: Concern for Others” running along the X-axis. Along these sliding scales we find five major categories: Competition, Avoidance, Accommodation, Compromise, Collaboration. (For more detailed exploration of these categories, you can visit an earlier blog post of mine on conflict styles.)
While some aspects of the TKI relate specifically to the way in which a conflict participant deals with the content of a conflict, conflict style is likely also to influence the way someone expresses themselves when faced with a conflict scenario. Cultivating an awareness of your own stylistic tendencies in conflict, as well as those of your colleagues, can help you to be prepared for how you might find yourself or others reacting to a conflict scenario. This preparation might allow you to keep reasoning in the face of conflict, and then proceed to make choices about the directness and intensity of your communication as tensions arise.
Crucially, Korkki notes near the end of her piece that leaders “need to establish behavioral norms in the workplace…Subconsciously, people tend to mirror one another’s behavior; regardless of your personal background, the pull toward reciprocity is strong.”
A leader may have increased power to affect a conflict scenario, or the conflict habits in an organization. Thus, as a leader you may be able to cultivate habits of direct and low-intensity communication in the face of tensions, particularly by consistently exhibiting those behaviors yourself. Adding our insights from the TKI to this might mean that you also need to be particularly aware of your own conflict style and tendencies, as well as those of the people you are leading. Combining these two analytical tools provides a powerful mechanism for shaping those unavoidable workplace conflicts into a positive, productive force.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.