At our recent Future Assistant Conference, we covered the topic of ‘managing difficult conversations’. Julie Leitz’s presentation is still one of our most popular online sessions because so many us shy away from having difficult conversations and managing conflict at work. It is inevitable that conflict will arise in the workplace; we all have different expectations, personalities and communication styles. Assistants are involved in so many aspects of the business that we will often witness this conflict, if not, be directly affected. Conflict can be useful – it can drive creativity and move the business forward. But it can also cause unneeded interruptions, create roadblocks and cause stress and anxiety for the employees. The behaviours that we express when we come into contact with conflict are wide and varied, and there is a brilliant matrix that is used by most leading behavioural scientists to measure how we all react. I wanted to share this knowledge with you today because I think it will help Assistants decide how to respond when faced with contentious situations.

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

I wanted to bring the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to your attention before we start to look at how Assistants can specifically manage conflict. The TKI is the leading process in conflict resolution and management. It is used by mediators, negotiators and most HR and Organisational Development consultants. Thomas and Kilmann came up with a method that shows how people react to conflict and how their behaviour results in the dispute being resolved. Here is a breakdown of the formula:

The TKI is designed to measure a person’s behaviour in conflict situations. “Conflict situations” are those in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible. In such situations, we can describe an individual’s behaviour along two dimensions: (1) assertiveness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy his own concerns, and (2) cooperativeness, the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns.

There are five different types of response that we all use when dealing with conflict. They are:

  • Competing
  • Collaborating
  • Compromising
  • Avoiding
  • Accommodating

Here is a good break down of how the models work with assertive or cooperative behaviour:

Let’s look at each of the types of response and how they might affect conflict management. Again this is taken from An Overview of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

  • Competing is assertive and uncooperative—an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means “standing up for your rights,” defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.
  • Accommodating is unassertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.
  • Avoiding is unassertive and uncooperative—the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus he does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.
  • Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.
  • Compromising is moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. The objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.

How to manage conflict at work for Assistants

Now that we know how we tend to deal with conflict at work, the obvious next step is looking at how to manage conflict. We all use these different strategies. We are all capable of competing when in conflict, avoiding it or compromising. The reality is that conflict in the workplace isn’t going away, so the best option is to look at what the root cause of conflict tends to be, and that is lack of communication. When I say ‘lack of communication’ I really mean, lack of information or the wrong information. Clear, concise, timely communications will always ease tension. Everyone knows where they stand. They might not like where they stand, but they know for sure the reasons behind it!