Conflicts are inevitable and conflict management is a necessary skill for every team leader. Contrary to what most people think, conflicts are not necessarily a bad thing. They can mean that your team members are comfortable enough to express their honest opinions. If handled correctly, you can learn important lessons and gain insights from most conflicts – especially non-toxic ones.
In order to manage such conflicts, it’s crucial to know the different conflict management styles that you have at your disposal. That’s what we’re going to be talking about in this article.
What is conflict management?
Conflict management is a process used for handling disputes and disagreements. Its goal is to minimize the negative consequences of a conflict and prioritize positive results.
A mutually beneficial outcome for all parties is certainly the desired outcome, but it’s not the only way to successfully resolve a conflict. As you’ll see, a successful resolution can mean different things. It all depends on the situation at hand and your chosen conflict management style.
Why are conflict management styles important?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ conflict management style that would be suitable for every situation. That’s why choosing the best possible style for the given circumstances is a key leadership skill.
Properly managed conflict minimizes interpersonal issues, increases client satisfaction, and produces better design and business outcomes. Handling conflict also enhances organizational learning, which transforms these experiences into knowledge and improvement.
Choosing the right conflict management style can mean the difference between reaping the aforementioned benefits or mishandling a workplace conflict and making it worse. That’s why you need to know which tactics are available to you and how to choose the best one.
How to choose the right conflict management style
When picking a conflict management style, I suggest that you take a birds-eye view of the situation and ask yourself a few questions.
How important is the issue?
The answer will tell you if the issue is important enough to prolong the conflict, or insignificant enough to let it go in order to save time and energy. That way, you can eliminate some styles of conflict management right out of the gate.
How familiar are you with the issue?
Is the issue something that you have extensively researched and are you sure that you’re making the right choice? Do you know what your users want and what the other party doesn’t? Or is the issue something that you’re not really familiar with? Your knowledge of the problem should impact your choice of conflict management style.
Do you fully understand the consequences?
What are the consequences of you entering the conflict? What will happen if you decide to stay out of it? Could there be serious repercussions if you decide to get into a conflict with a higher-up? Will you feel bad for not standing up for your beliefs? Is the product that you’re designing going to be worse because you didn’t bring up a conflicting perspective?
Always make sure that you have a clear overview of all the positive and negative consequences before you pick a method of conflict resolution.
Do you have the necessary time and energy to contribute?
We all have a limited amount of time and energy. Before choosing your conflict management style, try to estimate the extent to which your personal resources will be drained when trying to resolve the issue. Entering situations of conflict can turn into a long ordeal that demands research, metrics, discussions, and a lot of stress. Make sure that you care enough about the issue to dedicate time and energy to it, as it can be exhausting and will impact your other tasks. Choose your priorities and decide if resolving this conflict is one of them.
Is it possible to find the middle ground?
Is it possible to see the other side of the argument? Is there a way of satisfying both parties? Or are your views polar opposites? Searching for a compromise when there’s none to be found is a waste of time. This question is easier to answer if you know your team and their general opinions on the matter.
Once you’ve answered these questions, it’ll be much easier to pick the right conflict resolution method for the situation. Let’s take a look at the 5 conflict management strategies that you’ll usually be choosing from, along with their advantages and drawbacks, when to choose them, and some examples of conflict resolution.
The 5 most common conflict management styles
This style is about accommodating the other party and putting their needs before your own. You give in (or are persuaded to give in) and let them have this ‘win’ so that you can move on.
Accommodating style is good for low-concern situations, where you don’t care about the issue as much as the other person does. Your priority is to keep the peace and not prolong the conflict. It’s also a good choice when you think that you might be wrong anyway, or when you don’t really know enough about the issue.
While the accommodating style might seem kind of weak, it’s the best choice for resolving small conflicts and moving on to more important issues and tasks. It also demonstrates that you’re a highly cooperative person.
Disagreements are handled quickly and easily.
There’s minimum effort involved.
You build a reputation as an easygoing team leader.
Others know that they can speak their mind without reprisal.
You might be seen as weak if you accommodate others too often.
It’s a bad method for solving high-concern situations in a meaningful way and should be avoided in these situations.
An example of conflict resolution
You have a meeting with your client and are discussing the possible colour schemes for their new app. They love option A, but you think that option B is slightly better. You explain why, but they’re adamant that choice A is the best one for their app. You don’t want to argue, as you think that option A is okay too and you don’t view the issue as being super important. You agree that you’re going to use their preferred colour scheme and move on with the project.
The avoiding conflict management style doesn’t really manage the conflict. Rather, it evades it for the time being. Usually, you postpone it and ignore it until later. In some cases, you might even remove a problematic person from the project to avoid the conflict, but that’s a pretty extreme measure.
While avoiding the conflict might seem like a bad way to manage it, it’s actually a good choice in certain cases. For instance, you might want to avoid the issue when it seems trivial, when you currently don’t have time to deal with it, when you need more time to think about it, or when you think a cool-down period might help with later resolution. This is especially helpful when the conflict gets too heated.
However, you can’t postpone conflicts indefinitely, as this will only lead to even bigger disputes. Put simply, avoidance isn’t a substitute for proper resolution.
People have time to calm down, which can give them a much-needed perspective.
Quickly frees up time for more urgent matters.
Some smaller conflicts can even resolve themselves along the way.
Can make conflicts worse if used in the wrong situation.
You can seem incapable of handling disagreements if you choose avoidance too often.
An example of conflict resolution
During a design sprint, Jim and Sarah can’t agree on which additional features they’d like to incorporate into the product. Their argument is getting quite heated. As neither of the features that they’re arguing about is crucial for the prototype, you decide to postpone the decision and discuss it after the testing phase and before the next iteration. Jim and Sarah cool down and
A compromise happens when both parties make concessions so that they can agree on a solution. Finding this kind of middle ground is sometimes known as a lose-lose situation, as both parties have to give something up and are therefore not completely satisfied.
The compromising conflict management style is an appropriate choice when there are time constraints, or when you find yourself at an impasse and need a solution, even if it’s not perfect. It can also lead to a temporary solution that’s good enough for the time being.
- Both parties will understand more about the other’s perspective.
- Compromise can set the stage for collaboration later on.
- It allows both parties to feel heard.
- You can be perceived as a hands-on leader who wants to find an agreeable solution.
No one is completely happy.
One or both parties might feel as though they’ve made more sacrifices, which can lead to resentment.
Such parties might be less willing to compromise in the future.
If this tactic is overused, the leader might give the impression that they’re unable to get people to collaborate, which is why they resort to compromising every time
An example of conflict resolution
Ray and Charles run a profitable fast-growing e-commerce business. Ray wants to hire a full-time designer to unify and improve their visual brand image and help him prepare beautiful product presentations. However, Charles wants to hire a full-time social marketing specialist to sell even more products. They argue for a while and after some negotiation, they decide to hire both positions part-time. Neither is particularly satisfied with this option, but they accept the compromise in order to move past the conflict.
Collaborating conflict management style strives to find a win-win solution that completely satisfies all parties. In theory, everyone should benefit without giving up anything in return. That’s why it produces the best long-term results, but it’s often the most time-consuming because the solution can be very difficult to reach. Collaboration usually involves everyone sitting down together and talking through each party’s needs and wants.
This is a good option to go for when different perspectives need to be addressed in order to make an important decision. You should use it when multiple stakeholders have to be represented, when it’s vital to preserve the relationship between all parties, or when the solution is so impactful that you can’t afford anyone to be displeased with it. It might take a lot of work, but it’s definitely worth it if it means that you can continue working in harmony.
Everyone is satisfied: it creates a win-win situation.
It usually results in a better solution.
If you can bring people to collaborate, you are going to be seen as a skilled leader.
It’s time-consuming and might cause delays.
It can be very difficult to reach a solution that satisfies everyone.
An example of conflict resolution
This example is a bit different, as it will demonstrate how you can collaborate with your users and build customer loyalty.
Besides having a customer support department, you can also provide a way for your users to propose new ideas. An online forum where they can upvote and comment on other ideas works well. This way, the users can actively propose changes or new features instead of just writing to your support team when they have a problem. You can interact with them and let them know when you’re considering using an idea.
This is beneficial for you because you’ll obtain invaluable user feedback and ideas on how to improve your product. It also benefits your users, as they are engaged in problem-solving, feel heard, and get a result which better satisfies their own needs. This is collaboration – both sides gain something that helps them to achieve their goal without having to give up anything in the process.
Using a competing conflict management style means rejecting any compromise or other viewpoints. It means that one party takes a firm stance and doesn’t budge, no matter what. Obviously, forcing your point of view until you get your own way doesn’t sound like a great conflict resolution style.
However, there are times when this style is the right choice. You should use it when you have to stand up for your rights or morals, or when you need to make a quick, possibly unpopular decision and force others to get on board. It can also be used when you need to end a conflict or prevent a huge mistake from being made. Opt for this style when confrontation is inevitable, decisive action is needed, and assertiveness is the only way through.
While this style can quickly resolve conflict if used by a team leader, it also decreases morale and often productivity too. There are situations when it’s necessary, but it shouldn’t be heavily relied upon. If possible, you should use a different style.
It saves time, as it leaves no space for disagreement or discussion.
Team leaders that use it for the right reasons show that they won’t back down on their principles.
Team leaders abusing this style will be seen as unreasonable and authoritarian.
It’s not a constructive method and it doesn’t help to find the best possible solutions.
Crushing any dissent can demoralize employees.
An example of conflict resolution
Jacob is a new UX designer on Maria’s team. He’s proposing some radical changes during the next digital product update. Maria knows the product and its users inside out. She knows that these changes would be a huge mistake.
Maria can decide to tell Jacob that his ideas are no good and ask him to follow her instructions instead. However, this would be a bad and premature way of using the competing conflict management style. It would leave Jacob feeling belittled and ignored.
But if Maria explains her viewpoint to Jacob and he doesn’t want to listen or understand (and perhaps even tries to convince others in an aggressive manner), Maria should intervene and put a stop to it. This would be an appropriate use of a competing resolution method.
Conflicts are unavoidable, but you can and should prepare for them. Each of the listed styles is useful in certain situations, but as you can see, some are worse than others and shouldn’t be depended on too frequently.
I’ll leave you with a quote that I really like. It’s from Julio Zhuro, the author of The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You:
“This is the crux of management: It is the belief that a team of people can achieve more than a single person going at it alone. It is the realization that you don’t have to do everything yourself, be the best at everything yourself, or even know how to do everything yourself. Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.”
If you combine your new knowledge with tips on how to improve as a supportive leader and encouraging communication techniques, you’ll be well on your way to creating a fantastic work environment and getting better outcomes from your team.
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Oh hey, I’m Romina.
Design strategy consultant. Founder of DesignStrategy.guide and NUEVA / design studio. Wife. Mother.
I am a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Singularity.NET, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.