Conflict management training: A frequently missed opportunity
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Conflict management training: A frequently missed opportunity

If you could cut employee turnover by 50%, reduce wasted managerial time by one-third, shrink absenteeism, and remove a critical impediment to performance, would you do it?

Of course, you’ll say. Yet these challenges continue to plague workplaces everywhere because leaders don’t do something that’s within their power — train their people in conflict management.

This insight comes from a survey of 5,000 employees in nine countries of Europe and the Americas, commissioned by the psychological testing company CPP. Of the respondents, only 44% said they’d had any training to cope with interpersonal conflict in the workplace. That figure is shockingly low.

Ugly incidents, big costs

Make no mistake: The manifestations of unmanaged workplace conflict are ugly. They range from verbal attacks to bullying to destruction of property and violence directed at people.

And the costs — financial and human — of simmering conflict are huge and pervasive. Daniel Dana, founder of the Mediation Training Institute at Eckerd College, compiled data from exit interviews and found that more than half of resignations are related to interpersonal conflict. Some other key findings:

  • Between 30% and 42% of managers’ time is spent mediating disputes among co-workers
  • One quarter of employees in the CPP study had seen conflict lead to absenteeism
  • And one in four workers reported having at least one argument in the previous 12 months that was bad enough to compromise their ability to do their job.

All of this is so corrosive that, as Dana puts it, “The means by which organizations manage conflict might very well be one of the most significant factors they face in regards to costs, efficiency, effectiveness and employee retention.”

Modes of handling conflict

The best way to manage conflict, obviously, is to ensure that people throughout the organization are versed in conflict management techniques. And that’s where training comes in.

All sorts of conflict management/resolution training methods are available in the marketplace, and I don’t propose to describe all of them. But one assessment — the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI — contains enough insights into ways of handling conflict that it’s worth a look.

The TKI consists of a 30-item questionnaire that’s scored along five modes of handling conflict that individuals display in differing quantities:

  1. Competing. In this mode, people pursue their own concerns at another person’s expense. It implies relative low concern for any conflict this pursuit causes.
  2. Collaborating. This mode involves delving into an issue to identify the contrasting concerns and finding a solution that meets them.
  3. Compromising. In this mode, people work toward a solution that partially satisfies everybody, but fully satisfies nobody. A “quick fix” is the objective.
  4. Avoiding. Here, people don’t address the conflict at all. Avoidance may take the form of sidestepping an issue, postponing discussion of it, or withdrawing entirely from a tense situation.
  5. Accommodating. In this mode, one person yields to the other party to the conflict, in order to satisfy that party’s concerns.

Encouraging self-reflection

The idea behind the TKI is that by taking it, individuals can get a picture of how their reactions balance these modes when they face conflict. If their behavior is out of balance, they can correct it.

But even if you don’t want to formally assess your employees, you may to share with them the five-dimensional model as a basis for discussion and self-reflection about how to more effectively navigate conflict with colleagues.

Whatever you do, though, the research suggests that you NOT ignore conflict management training. It’s too important.

This blog entry is based on the following materials and research studies:

CPP (2008). Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive.

Dana, D. (2001). Conflict Resolution: Mediation Tools for Everyday Worklife. McGraw-Hill.

FairWay Resolution (2014). Conflict in New Zealand Workplaces Study.


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