Abbey Slattery is a writer, editor, and pop culture aficionado. She has contributed to newspapers, magazines, and websites, but is most prolific on Twitter.
Popular culture is full of examples of conflict management in the workplace. At Dunder Mifflin, it’s Michael Scott hosting an office meeting on why work is better than prison. In Pawnee, it’s Leslie Knope trying to assemble the perfect mural and beat out the Sewage Department. At TGS with Tracy Jordan, it’s Liz Lemon dealing with Tracy and Jenna’s outrageous demands.
But real life is a little messier than TV, and dealing with conflict is awkward—especially when you don’t have a team of writers paid to tie everything up nicely by the season finale.
That’s where the conflict management styles come in handy.
Defining conflict management
So what is conflict management? Well, there’s a little more to it than just dealing with issues in the workplace. To properly execute conflict management, you’ll need savvy communication skills, refined problem solving abilities, and deft negotiation tactics.
When managing conflict, you’re not just brushing a problem under the table. you’re talking about solutions, hearing from both parties, and arriving at a conclusion that satisfies at least some of those involved
The 5 styles of conflict management
If the issue isn’t really a big deal (say deciding between one team event or another) or you think you might be in the wrong, you might consider the accommodation strategy. Accommodation means simply putting others’ needs before your own and giving into their wants (i.e., going with their event suggestion). Whether it’s to save face or maintain a relationship, it’s not known as the most effective conflict management style, but when the problem isn’t a major deal you might consider this option.
Avoiding is probably the most common solution. Why deal with the problem when you can sweep it under the rug?
Joking aside, avoiding can actually, surprisingly, be the best option sometimes—which is probably good news to a lot of ears (especially mine). If you need to create some distance from an emotional issue, want more time to think on things, or the issue is minor enough to ignore, then avoiding might be your go-to route.
You definitely shouldn’t avoid managing the conflict when there’s an issue of discrimination, abuse, or if someone’s job could be on the line.
Compromising is all about finding middle ground. Both parties won’t get everything they’re looking for, but it’s an effective way to reach an agreement under time constraints. Sometimes compromise can be seen as loss for both sides since no one gets everything they want, so if possible, try the collaborating strategy.
The better looking cousin of compromise, collaboration is the “win-win” conflict management style. It aims find a solution that satisfies the needs of both parties, rather than settling for a middle ground or picking a side.
While collaborating takes a lot of time—sitting down and thoroughly discussing solutions can take days, or even weeks—it’s the ideal method for conflicts that involve multiple parties or problems that need a creative solution.
The most aggressive style of conflict management, competing assumes that the other party is incorrect, and the opposing party insists on getting their way. When you put it on paper, it can sound a kind of like a toddler having a temper tantrum, but it’s (usually) more complex in reality.
While competing can be used by people stubbornly digging their heels in, it can also be employed when making an unpopular or moral decision, when time is of the essence, or when trying to prevent someone from steamrolling the situation.
Putting conflict management to use
Now that you know the management styles and their terminology, it’s time to add them to your arsenal. Workplace conflict can be broken down into two main categories: interpersonal conflict and leadership conflict.
Managing interpersonal conflict
If you work a full-time job, you spend the majority of your week in the workplace around your coworkers. So when someone’s work style doesn’t mesh with yours, it can really ramp up the tension.
Let’s harken back to the world of television. More specifically, The Office. In an episode fittingly titled “Conflict Resolution,” Angela and Oscar, deskmates in the accounting department, have a squabble over one of Angela’s posters.
Michael tries to step in and save the day, proposing that Oscar get the poster printed on his t-shirt, so he never has to see it and Angela always can. This is a great and rare example of compromise not working for either party involved.
In the real world, an issue like this could be properly solved by almost any of the styles, although collaboration would be the ideal. Put the poster on a magnet so it’s smaller and out of sight, ask to change seating arrangements, or get HR involved to discuss taking it down.
Managing leadership conflict
Unfortunately, not all bosses are good bosses, and dealing with leadership conflict is intimidating for employees. After all, you don’t want to risk your job security just because you don’t like the way your manager leads.
What better boss is there to use as an example than The Office’s Michael Scott? After one of his employees, Stanley, gets a heart rate monitor, Michael realizes that every time he gets near Stanley, the monitor’s elevated heart rate alert goes off. In other words, the thing that stresses Stanley out most at work is simply being in the presence of Michael.
To solve the problem, Michael somehow comes to the conclusion that he should host a roast of himself, which leads to everyone in the office hurling insults at him, and Michael sinking into a deep—albeit short—depression.
Obviously, a roast is not an official style of conflict management—and with good reason. In real life, Michael might’ve considered the avoiding or accommodating strategy, putting Stanley’s needs before his own and changing his work habits. After all, the man had a heart attack.
In the end, if you’ve learned anything about conflict management from this post, just don’t listen to what anything they say on The Office.