Healthy Conflict is Good for Business

Healthy Conflict is Good for Business


Debates, differences, disagreements and arguments all play a vital role in the workplace. According to Robert Townsend, professor of Economics at MIT: “A good manager doesn’t try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you’re the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong – that’s healthy.”

Indeed, healthy conflict is a feature of an effective meeting. It’s also an indication of commitment and caring. Think about the really passionate people in your team who speak up and argue their points. They are engaged and invested in the outcome. But we’ve probably all been in situations where people get ugly, personal and so emotional they can’t focus on the issues at hand. It’s not healthy and it doesn’t work. Healthy conflict, on the other hand, leads to lively meetings that extract all opinions, solve problems quickly, minimise the politics and put critical topics on the table. To argue effectively, shouting is not an option. Developing a controlled, just-the-facts approach to arguing helps you remember that you are on the same team and that everyone deserves to be heard.

Conflict management tool

One tool that’s proven effective in many businesses is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument or TKI. It’s designed to measure a person’s behaviour in ‘conflict situations’, defined as those in which the concerns of two people appear to be incompatible. In such situations, an individual’s behaviour can be described in two basic ways: Assertiveness – the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy his own concerns; and co-operativeness – the extent to which the person attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns.

Five response modes

The two basic dimensions of behaviour define five different modes for responding to conflict situations:

  1. Competing: assertive and unco-opertive
  2. Accommodating: unassertive and co-operative
  3. Avoiding: unassertive and unco-operative
  4. Collaborating: assertive and co-operative
  5. Compromising: moderately assertive and co-operative

Your conflict behaviour in the workplace is a result of both your personal predispositions and the requirements of the situation in which you find yourself. According to the TKI, each of us is capable of using all five conflict-handling modes. None of us can be characterised as having a single style of dealing with conflict. But certain people use some modes better than others and therefore, tend to rely on those modes more heavily than others – whether because of temperament or practice. Understanding these ways of dealing with conflict can help you have a conversation about how you can work toward collaborating or compromising in an argument rather than competing, avoiding or always accommodating (which can lead to underlying resentment).

What’s your conflict mode?

Take the TKI online. The test costs US$30 per person, including a personalised PDF report for each respondent within 48 hours.
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Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.