Managing Conflict

by Ron

In his book The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the series The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien describes the camaraderie of a diverse group banded together by a common cause. Called “the fellowship of the ring,” their quest is to destroy the power of the Dark Lord by destroying the ring in which that power resides. Though they differ in nearly every way—racially, physically, temperamentally—the fellowship is united in its opposition of the Dark Lord.

In a section omitted in the movie, a heated conflict breaks out among the crusaders. Axes are drawn. Bows are bent. Harsh words are spoken. Disaster nearly strikes the small band. When peace finally prevails, a wise counselor observes, “Indeed in nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.”

Conflict causes estrangement within teams, even the best teams. Therefore, managing conflict is at the heart of the dilemma of the leader who has good relations with individual team members but cannot get the group to work together.

Rivalry causes division. Debate causes hurt feelings or a sense of not being heard or understood. How does a leader keep an aggressive person and a person who easily withdraws engaged?

Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann created the Conflict Mode Instrument, which is “designed to assess an individual’s behavior in conflict situations.” It measures people’s behavior along two basic dimensions: “(1) assertiveness—the extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy his or her concerns, and (2) cooperativeness—the extent to which an individual attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns. These two dimensions of behavior can be used to identify five specific methods of dealing with conflicts.” The methods are described as follows:

  1. Avoiding—Low assertiveness and low cooperativeness. The goal is to delay.
  2. Competing—High assertiveness and low cooperativeness. The goal is to win.
  3. Accommodating—Low assertiveness and high cooperativeness. The goal is to yield.
  4. Compromising—Moderate assertiveness and moderate cooperativeness. The goal is to find a middle ground.
  5. Collaborating—High assertiveness and high cooperativeness. The goal is to find a win-win situation.8

Leaders need to use the peacemaking qualities defined by the two pillars of humility and endurance to bring conflict to the highest level of resolution: collaboration. The cooperative environment means “I need to be humble.” The assertive environment means “I need to endure.” The two pillars, taken together, cause people to listen, yet hold firm in solving conflict through collaboration. When collaborating, individuals seek to work with others to find a solution that satisfies all parties. It involves digging into hidden concerns, learning, and listening but not competing.

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