Written by Melissa Summer. 1 min read.
In this episode of The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast, we interview Dr. Gail Fann Thomas. Along with Drs. Ken Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, Gail is working on the soon-to-be released TKI Conflict Mode Team Report.
She is a consultant, coach, and educator focused on communication, conflict management, and collaboration. Gail’s worked with employees at all levels – and both in the private and public sectors and she’ll suggest some strategies that you might use to improve conflict management in your own organization. Additionally, over the past 35 years, Gail taught graduate education in a university setting where she co-authored more than 60 academic articles and reports.
In this episode, Gail discusses what conflict is, and what types of clients she works with in her conflict management consulting business. We also discuss how COVID and the move to remote and hybrid work has affected conflict management, and what challenges those new working environments present.
Other questions answered in this episode:
- What trends have you noticed over the years regarding conflict manage-ment?
- What tools do you use to teach people better conflict management skills?
- What practical tips do you have for managers in conflict?
- What practical tips do you have for teams in conflict?
Want to learn more about conflict management? Check out these resources:
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Intro: Welcome to The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast where we bring together thought leaders, psychologists and personality experts from around the world, to talk about work life, home life and how to get the best from life.
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Melissa Summer (MS): Welcome everyone to The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast. Over the last ten years, we’ve seen huge changes in organizations. Things like, more reliance on artificial intelligence, bigger focus on diversity and inclusion, remote and hybrid work and virtual teams and of course, the pandemic has just accelerated these changes for a new way of working. But as with any change, conflict is inevitable, and conflict is what we’re going to be talking about today. So, with these changes, old ways of doing things haven’t been working but we have to figure out a new way. However, the problem here is not everyone agrees on the same way to move forward. The research is clear that effective conflict management is a cornerstone of high-performing organizations so while conflict management has always been an important competence, today more than ever, it’s an imperative for everyone. Everyone from executives to managers to frontline workers. And with me today I’m very excited to have as a guest Dr Gail Thomas. She’s a co-author with the Myers-Briggs company and, alongside Dr Ken Thomas and Dr Ralph Kilman, Gail is working on the soon to be released TKI conflict mode team report.
Over the past thirty-five years, Gail has taught graduate education in a university setting where she’s co-authored more than sixty academic articles and reports. She’s a consultant, a coach and an educator focused on communication conflict management and collaboration. Gail has worked with employees at all levels both in the private and public sectors and I’m excited that today she’s going to suggest some strategies that you might be able to use to improve conflict management, wherever you are: organizations within schools, within even teams or groups, non-profits, government, everywhere.
So welcome Dr Gail Fann Thomas!
Dr Gail Fann Thomas (GT): Thanks, Melissa.
MS: Lovely to have you. So today we’re going be talking about conflict and I guess my first question is, when we’re talking about conflict, how do you define conflict?
GT: Right, that’s a great place to start! You know a lot of people hear the word conflict and they immediately say: “You know, we don’t want any conflict.” and that’s because they probably don’t have a good definition of conflict. So when we talk about conflict, a lot of people I know think about that it means fighting or blaming people or arguing and while that can be a consequence of a conflict, it’s not the definition of conflict.
So instead, the definition I use, is a condition in which people’s concerns or things they care about are incompatible. So in other words it might be situations that people where they perceive differences, they have differences of opinion, different perspectives, different ideas, and that is just conflicting, right, it creates some tension but many times that is really good, it’s going to result in some really great outcomes. So examples of that might be where we have conflicts around budgets, around timelines, schedules, change implementation… I’m guessing pretty much everyone can relate to those. We’ve all been dealing with those.
And a couple of really quick examples, just to be more specific. A couple of days ago, I was talking with a colleague, we were at the farmer’s market, and she was saying, you know I’ve been working with my boss, and we’ve got a got a real difference of opinion about who should be hired to teach some courses. And so it was basically about some criteria, what criteria are we going to use to either decide to hire or not hire or which persons would we hire perhaps. Another one that came up was, I was talking to another colleague, we were doing some research around using focus groups, and there was a difference of opinion on the team about what questions should we use for the focus group, who should we be interviewing for the focus group. So almost anything, you know, hopefully you got some really smart people, and you got an important task, you’re going to have different ideas. So being able to harvest those is going to be really super important.
Next is to think about not just conflict itself but how it is that we approach conflict. So we often talk about five different approaches to conflict and one of them would be Avoiding. So I’m sure you’ve all been in situations where it’s like, okay I just want to push that off or not deal with that, it’s not something I want to go there. So that would be what we might call Avoiding.
Another is full-on Assertive. So that is the “My way or the highway” approach. And there can be a lot of reasons why people use that. It could be that you’re the boss, right, and you just basically say: “I’m the boss. We’re doing it my way.” Or it could be you just think you have a really good idea that is the best idea so we’re going to do it that way. Or it could be that you are just short on time so you basically just have to say: “Hey I know you might not all agree but we’re doing it this way.” So there can be a lot of ways in which Assertive is used.
The other three all have to do with some ways to co-operate. So, the first way could be Accommodating which is basically giving into the other person, so let’s say, Melissa, you and I have a difference of opinion and for whatever reason maybe just for goodwill purposes or, guess what, you actually have the best idea I’m going to say: “Yeah let’s go with Melissa’s idea. She’s got the idea for today.”
Another one could be Compromising, and that choice is basically what we call the split down the middle. So, you suggest something, I suggest something, and we basically, sometimes just for time purposes we say: “Okay let’s just do part of yours and part of mine.” You know we walk away at the end of the day and we’re not super satisfied because we didn’t really get all we wanted but maybe we think, okay something better than nothing.
The final conflict mode is Collaboration and I think actually the most difficult I think because it requires a pretty deep skill set. But the research is really clear on complex tasks that are really important to people and assuming you have the time to make a good collaborative effort, that that is the most ideal. So, we’ll talk more about that maybe a little bit later but… it’s… and the mode, how that’s different than, let’s say Compromise that I just talked about, is in Collaboration, I’m going to look at Melissa and what she wants, and kind of find out the underlying concerns she has and why that’s important to her, and do the same with me, and then we’re going to kind of look at those and see is there some way that we could, as much as possible, create a win-win, where we could do what Melissa needs and what I need as close to a hundred percent as possible. So, it’s really different than the compromise to split down the middle. That one is always one you want to have in your toolkit.
My next thing I was going to talk about was how the way people approach conflict is actually pretty unconscious and a habit, and they’re not even aware that you have all these choices. People generally are unaware that they have a preference—they are using one of those five and maybe to the extent of overusing or underusing.
And then I started to mention a little bit is each one of those actually has a best time and place to use. So even though you may have access to all of those and be using them, it might be that you’re using mode it might not be the best mode at the particular time and place. So there’s actually quite a bit to it, it’s not that hard, but if you don’t know about it, then it makes it difficult.
Kind of the time and place for those like Avoiding…let me give you some examples because a lot of people will start out with find out they’re really high on Avoiding. And for the most cases, really high at Avoiding is not going to be very good but Avoiding, in and of itself, is not bad. I mean there are times when things aren’t that important, when you don’t have time, when tensions are really high, then it is a good time to kind of put something on the back burner and come back to it later. So many of the people I work with, who may be really high on Competing, who just think Avoiding’s horrible, once we talk about that, they say, “Hmm maybe I need to learn that one too, because there are times when I know I probably was pushing when I probably should have backed off.” So, time and place on all of those are really important to understand those too.
And so we know again, there’s been forty, fifty years of research around this, really clear that well-managed conflict can easily result in better engagement, more productivity, increased morale, et cetera et cetera. But on the other hand, poorly managed conflict, and I’m sure we all can think of situations in which we’ve been in, that conflict was managed well, and that were not managed well. And the not managed well, and I do this in class, it is an ugly list…the distrust that’s there, obviously decreased engagement, decreased information sharing.I It gets to the point people will say, “I don’t want to be on a team, this team, anymore because of that.” And we actually, at some point, may get people who leave the organization because of it. So there are dire consequences of not understanding the power and consequences of conflict and whether or not it’s handled well or not handled well.
MS: That’s okay so just so I have it in my head… so the five conflict modes: Avoiding, Accommodating, Collaboration…
MS: Collaborating, Compromising …and
GT: And what’s the “My way or the highway”?
MS: Oh, Assertive?
GT: It’s Competing…is what we call it, but yeah, Assertive. Competing, it can be…it’s high Assertive and it’s uncooperative, right. I don’t care what you want, I’m not going to cooperate with you, we’re doing it my way. So those are the five, right. Very good.
MS: Interesting. It’s fascinating to have those again. I never thought of conflict as having different modes that you could use versus just deal with this conflict and get through it. So in your bio it says that you do a lot of coaching and working with organizations around conflict. What type of conflict do you see the most for people at work and then, what do you spend time with clients working on?
GT: Okay. So you said in the intro I’ve been doing this for about twenty years, and I do individuals, I work with teams…I do, like you said, a lot of executive education and what’s interesting is I always ask people, “What are the kinds of conflict you’ve dealt with in the say the past couple of weeks?” and I’ll get a long list, and we just say, “What differences of opinion have you’ve had with people?” And, no surprise if you think about the various levels in the organization: Executives are going to talk about strategic issues, mid-level managers are going to probably talk about complex operational issues, and then more front-line workers or their supervisors are going to talk about immediate tasks, they might talk about space allocation, they might talk about schedules, things that that deal with the day-to-day tasks. And it kind of goes with that idea we know about timeframes. So an executive is going to be thinking in a year or more timeframe, mid-level managers may be six months to a year, and then front-line workers are more thinking, you know, the week or the month or whatever. So there’s timelines for each one of those levels and of course the issues are going to kind of be parallel to that.
So some specific examples if I’m working with executives, it might not be uncommon that they are thinking about adding a new product line, or a new competency that they want for their whole organization, or maybe they’re going to diminish something that they’ve been doing. Our organization’s going through that, and I tell you it causes a lot of angst with a lot of the employees. It could be that they’re going to downsize, that’s going to cause a lot of conflict. It could be that there’s going to be a re-org. Again, we’re doing that in our own organization so that’s caused a lot of issues. Mid-level managers may be talking about specific products, they might be talking about timelines, definitely resource allocations, so those things…you are not going to be working at that level, I would say any level but you’re not going to do that and have everybody slap the table and say, “Oh yes, there’s one way to do this and this is the best way.” I mean I don’t know about you…that never happens with the people I work with. And then the last is these frontline workers, so they may be thinking about the specific work task, performance decisions, promotion criteria, so things that might be, you know, for the first line or supervisors. And then I have to mention that for the past two, two and a half years I have not done a single session, I don’t care what level it is, that they don’t bring up COVID, something related to COVID, which really you know gets into the remote and hybrid work. So I think we’ll probably talk a little bit about that later but that’s definitely something that has come and is really front and center.
And then addition to the what we talk about there’s always the who we’re going to talk about. So people talk about conflict with their bosses, so I recently talked with a young woman in an organization who having a lot of problems working with her boss and so I’ve done a lot of coaching around that. Others conflict with your peers, you know, co-workers. And as we do more and more cross functional work and working across organizations, that just naturally is going to create conflict. There’s going to be differences as we have to decide on resources and roles and responsibility, so that brings that up. Working with subordinates, a lot of times I’m talking to their supervisors or very senior people and the kind of conflict that comes up with their subordinates. And then of course, outside constituents so, it could be customers, it could be vendors, working with senior level leaders, they may be working with other senior level leaders and other organizations, and obviously there’s going to be conflict that arises there because they’re going to have different opinions about how they want to do things. So it’s really all over the place, all levels, and kind of almost three-sixty.
So, there’s three different types of conflict types of conflict I talk about: the Task Interpersonal, and Process. And Task conflict is that which is really focused on the more substantive issue of the task itself. And there is…research is pretty clear that there is kind of a sweet spot on the kind of amount of conflict you want to have. Not too little, not too much, but enough to be able to surface differences and then work through those in a positive way to be able to get them to a better outcome. So there are many ways in which actually pushing sometimes to get people’s ideas and things that’s going to be important.
But the Interpersonal and Process conflict…so Interpersonal I mentioned is kind of personality issues and Process has to do with the how, when, where we’re going to do something. Those two generally do not yield more effectiveness on a team or in a two-way kind of conflict. So what we want to try to do as much as possible is minimize Interpersonal conflict and Process conflict and then try to hit that sweet spot on Task conflict and actually even within the timeline of the project, there can be better times to be able to surface those differences. So that’s what we call conflict management. And there are some really clear strategies and ways to approach either increasing task conflict or minimizing Interpersonal and Process conflict.
So just kind of wrapping up here. What’s important is, from all the things I’ve been talking with people about is having some kind of common framework, and kind of what you mentioned, Melissa, is like, well I never thought about it that way, that we actually have a model around assertiveness and cooperativeness and there’s five different ways, you know, by the way, it’s a choice, I could actually do it differently. The second is, what’s really cool is when I do these in teams or whatever, we’re building a common language. So now it means we can actually talk about this, like we know what those different approaches are, we know what happens when there’s overuse or underuse, and so now we actually have a language that we can talk about it. One is then doing some kind of assessment so everyone knows where their Achilles heels are on certain things and with each other and be able to work around those. And then there are a lot of strategies and tools for dealing with conflict. So those are the things I kind of touch on with people within my work.
MS: It makes me think too, when you say the common language thing, that even just being able to tell someone generally…like someone you’re having some sort of conflict with, I think of some of my co-workers and saying, ‘Oh, generally my conflict style is collaborative,’ so, more than likely I’ll try and do this…I guess that’s the self-awareness part, knowing that I do that, and being able to explain it in a way that’s not saying, oh this is right or wrong—this is just how, given everything I know about my inner personal style, how I approach it. I feel like that’d be incredibly helpful.
GT: It might be. I haven’t seen your particular profile, right, if you were to do an assessment, but it’s possible. Even though collaborating is great, you could be on the actual overuse of collaborating. And how I know that is because I am that person. And it tends to be my “go to” all the time. But in a lot of times, it’s not the right thing. And so I have to kind of catch myself, when I might be pushing it, when it’s actually not the right time and place for it. So that’s something even though collaboration I would say it should be in everybody’s toolkit, it doesn’t mean you want to be using it all the time either.
MS: I like the toolkit idea too. I feel like all the podcast episodes is just finding more tools for people to use and work together better. So you had mentioned earlier that COVID and the pandemic has come up in a lot of the sessions that you’ve been doing lately, in a lot of the coaching calls, so when it comes to COVID and a lot of people who are working remotely who maybe weren’t working remotely or hybrid before, and how people are interacting, is there any difference now kind of during slash post COVID compared to what you were seeing before?
GT: Yeah, so what’s really interesting… and it’s not like everything that was happening in the beginning days of COVID has totally gone away because we keep seeing these waves, right? So there’s always variations right on the theme of that. But what I found really interesting and again my own experience, and I’m sure probably everybody who’s listening, similar kind of thing is, when this started to happen, safety procedures had to be put in place…so which procedures like… Do we have to wear masks? How were we going a distance from each other? Were there going to be X’s on the floor? Was there going to be the plexiglass kind of things? Different industries were doing different things. Even within our school it was people didn’t agree on all of that.
Another one was, where were the resources going to come to pay for all this because it was going to be costly, so who was going to pay for that? Whose budget was going to be hit for this? Who would be responsible this for executing and monitoring? So you can come up with all rules but who’s going to make sure they’re actually being done and that you’re following all the…for us we had to wipe down seats… well, who’s going to wipe down the seats? Whose job is that going to be and how do we make sure it’s actually been done? Who was going to be allowed to telework? In our case, you know, most people were, there are a few people who didn’t. And then what kind of telework was going to be put in process? There are telework policies. So all of those things had to be negotiated because you know, especially the early days, and I would say it’s still that way but there was a lot of stress and a lot of emotion that was happening and all these decisions having to be made. So there was conflict all over the place on this.
For us, and I know this is true probably of some other places our university we… it just so happened that the COVID kind of coincided with our two-week break around quarters. And so, we were given about two weeks to get everything a hundred percent online. Now for some of us, we’ve already been teaching online, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but for many people across campus they had never taught virtually, and they basically said this can’t be done. But we had a senior leader or president who said you will do it, we are going to do this, so people had two weeks to get all of their materials and figure out how to use Zoom, we were using at the time, et cetera et cetera, and I can tell you it was a very stressful time [laughter].
And then what I was hearing from other organizations that I thought was really interesting because I’m still working, right, and I’m dealing with teams all over the world, we’re doing things, and so what would come up almost every session we would do are the leaders who were now having to lead teams either remotely or hybrid kind of teams, and pretty much I would say ninety-five percent of them had never done that before or done it very little and didn’t know how to how to handle that. And so that was extremely stressful for them…how am I going to do this? So, things that came up there, if you remember particularly the early days, right, you had maybe a husband and a wife or a partner or whatever it is and maybe a kid or five kids or whatever, that have all been sent home to work or go to school and you got to figure out how you’re going to turn your house into an office place. So, some people camped out in the kitchen, some people camped out in the dining room or in their bedrooms…so you’re negotiating the space as well as you’re all living there. So that was an issue for some people and caused a lot of stress for some people.
As we know, there were people who had contracted COVID, or family members, and you know when the death rate was much higher, obviously that was a huge amount of stress that was on top of everything else that was going on. And what I noticed was a wide range. I mean I dealt with some people who were almost paralyzed by the amount of stress that this had caused them, you know, personally it was so difficult. And then on the opposite, I had people who said: “I’ve never been more productive in my whole life.” So their productivity skyrocketed maybe because they didn’t have to commute any more, or, you know, I don’t really care about chit chat at work and people stopping by my office. I don’t have to do that anymore. So, and then of course everything in-between. So, I noticed that, and you know almost everybody I talked with, that was going on.
And then when we…then we’re talking about that, right, not just how we’re going to deal with COVID, then it was for remote and hybrid teams and what are going to be the expectations for workload, right? Are we going to have to do less work because now…and we might not have the right equipment to do our works. Are they’re going to be some changes that will happen as the result of that? Are timelines going to be shifted? How often—this one came up a lot—how often do we have to meet? We are going to have these Zoom meetings? And then now that we have some people hybrid like how many times do you have to go into the office, and do you have to have face-to-face meetings, or can you do online or is there some accommodation to do both? So that I know is still a major issue in organizations. How are you going to organize the meetings now if you predominantly had face-to-face meetings, and now you’ve got this, you have to change the way you meet, you can’t just do it the same old way you did face-to-face. You have to change it up a little bit. We had a lot of consternation about what platform. First, we had Zoom, then we had Teams, and some people didn’t like using Teams, so there was you know, a lot of conflict around that.
Another one that was interesting in my place, I don’t know if it happens to others, is cameras. So, as an instructor or coach, I want to have your camera on, I want to see you, and I want to…can I read the nonverbals,? Not as good as face-to-face, but maybe. Well, we were working with people in classified spaces, and they didn’t even have cameras on their computers. They are not allowed to have cameras on their computers. So, there was that, so you know, no cameras for them. And then the other which I found I found fascinating, and I haven’t seen any research like this but…I would notice that in different commands—I, do work for the Navy—and different commands, there would almost be like a culture, in which the members, not because of being classified, but it’s just….they didn’t want to have cameras their personal home space. And I would find it would be several people who would say, “I’m not comfortable with that” so there was actually even you know within different organizations they would have kind of already come with kind of some norms in which they would say, we don’t do cameras on here.
MS: My partner’s an engineer and I’ve asked him, “Well you guys all have your cameras off the entire time.” And he goes, “Oh. We’re all engineers. We just said that it takes up too much bandwidth for everyone to have their camera on. We don’t need it.”
GT: [laughter] Yes, so they’ll have an excuse, right, of why they don’t want it. Yeah, exactly.
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Voiceover: What is your approach to conflict? Are you Competitive, Accommodating, Avoiding? People approach conflict differently.
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To resolve conflict at work, you need to know about conflict styles. The TKI shows you five approaches to conflict and how to move conflict to a more productive place. See the Myers-Briggs dot com forward slash TKI for a fast conflict solution.
GT: Okay so anyway, all the things I’ve kind of talked about because of hybrid and remote work that we’re doing now, and that is not going to go away, right, as we’ve been reading in the papers and things, that… particularly… well, I think just a lot of people, they want to stay remote, so that’s going to be an issue. But what I think is interesting…it’s almost like everything had to be renegotiated. And of course, many people are not going to agree on exactly what that is, and so it brought up all of this conflict in ways that we had really considered routine and things we didn’t even question that now are on the table, in addition to all the other things that were going on. So, I think for that reason there’s been a lot of stress in the workplace for people because dealing with all these issues.
MS: It sounds like too, that the renegotiation that maybe previously didn’t have to happen because there was a lot, as far as job security, there weren’t as many open positions, people didn’t feel like maybe they could leave as easily and find something else remote, but now it feels like a lot of the employers are having to do a lot more on that renegotiation front and maybe address some of this conflict., Where before they could have said, “Well, if you don’t like it you can leave.”
GT: Exactly, exactly.
MS: Hopefully good employers are not just saying that, but we know occasionally it happens. So when it comes to the trends around conflict management, aside from the renegotiation and the hybrid worker, are there any other trends that you’ve noticed?
GT: Yeah, so as we know, I mean you kind of introduced me that way, is that with artificial intelligence, technology changing, this COVID thing kind of just accelerated the change, so the workplace is changing significantly from ten, twenty years ago. And so obviously that brings up a lot of other issues too because of those changes. So I was thinking about a few of the things that I frequently see and one that is always on the top of the list is multigenerational teams.
GT: So it is not uncommon in an organization now to have three or four generations in teams and so, and definitely in an organization right, and so that’s going to bring up areas of conflict. One you just kind of mentioned is people who are deciding whether or not they want to stay at a place and so they may make choices to leave, if they don’t get enough work flexibility. So that’s always an issue and I actually have a reading I give people because that comes up so much.
Another one that I’ve seen recently, not sure it really has anything to do with what’s going on, but just that I’ve noticed is…younger employees who are being promoted and are supervising older employed people, people who’ve been around longer or who are older than they are. And so they’re very concerned about that and the type of conflict that might arise because of that, so I’ve seen several of those lately. And then one I was going to mention is exactly what you just mentioned, is senior employees having… or employers, right, having employees now coming and saying, “Hey I don’t want to live in…I have friends right…I don’t want to live in New York anymore. I want to live wherever I want to live, and if you can’t accommodate that, I just got three offers as Marketing Director in three other organizations, so what are you going to do about it?” So, I know several examples of probably my friends’ children who are in their mid or late thirties who are in these situations where they can call their price and flexibility, and that type of thing.
Another one that I have been working on a lot lately is intercultural and cross-cultural teams, so I do a lot of work in other countries. And so, what is really fascinating about that is it adds another level of complexity around cultural differences that we have on how we handle conflict, so you know how we handle face, right, like if we are more or less willing to save face for people. Different cultures are different around that, so that has implications on how you handle conflict. So that’s extremely fascinating, the work I do around that.
And then I think the last one I’ll mention is the fluidity of teams. So probably you know ten, twenty, years ago it was kind of assumed that teams were more stable, you stayed on a particular team, you did it for a long time with the same people. Again the research shows, and I can tell from my personal experience in my university, I was counting up, I was probably on about twelve teams simultaneously, or groups. Some of them were short term kinds of things, some of them were long term kinds of things, some of them were more homogeneous, like my management group. We’ve been together for a long time, and we all teach management. Or I’d be in on committees that would be cross disciplinary so I’d be working with engineers or people from national security affairs, so there’d be a broad difference that only last a test, it would be three or four months or something. And then I had multiple research teams that were all going simultaneously and each of those had different members, some of them overlapping, but some not.
So, the research really shows that people are moving in and out of teams at a much more rapid rate than they did in the past. So, I think the implications for that, the way I read it is, you really need to have these conflict management skills, whether you’re a member of a team or a leader of a team, because this is going to be really dynamic, and a lot of those changes are going to create more conflict and how do you manage, it given all of this dynamism in it, and you still have things that are going to be due, and you still have quality concerns, and so dealing with conflict—I know I’m biased—but it seems to me it’s going to be one of the very most important things for the future of work.
And then, I want to talk a little bit about this idea about collaboration, I keep bringing that up and how important that is. Another way to think about it is, problem solving, being able to do problem solving with one or more people. And it’s basically how do we work together, harnessing different ideas, all towards a common goal, so that’s kind of the essence of it. And it’s really like I said before, being able to surface disagreements, in a positive way, to make our outcome even better than it could have been. Another piece of that is being creative and finding this idea, I said earlier integrative solution, so it’s not “either”, “or”, but it’s the “and”. We don’t want to just do your idea or my idea or some half and half but how can we be more encompassing?
And I’ll tell you, I do a lot of international work where we’re working with stakeholders where there may be, you know, twenty, thirty, forty people with different levels and different agencies all at the table and they all bring very different concerns to the table, and so it takes a lot of creativity to try to figure out how do we accommodate as much as possible, so that we can reach an integrative solution that’s going to work? Because if it doesn’t work, I mean we can all slap the table and say fine and then walk away and we keep going back doing what we were doing right? So, if you want buy-in and you want people really to be able to participate, then that’s really going to help the implementation process.
I have examples from the military I’ve been in, where senior people made policy decisions and, you know, it’s happened more than once that they didn’t include people who were actually going to have to implement these. And so, when it got rolled out, you had people who just looked at it and said, this isn’t even possible, what you asked us to do, or it doesn’t make any sense and then when it gets fed back to the policymakers they go, “Oh yeah, you know we didn’t think about that.” So not including more people and understanding that before a decision gets made is really going to be detrimental to the implementation of any kind of policy or change issue.
And so, you know, what I said earlier like the collaboration thing is not intuitive for most people, that’s something that is learned. Maybe you, I don’t know, Melissa, how you learned it, it may be from your family, it could be you had a role model that you’ve seen …
MS: Oh! It was team sports.
GT: Teams… Oh there you go… right… that’s good.
MS: I’ve played team sports almost all my life and I think that’s been one of the biggest ones because it’s almost, not that you have to, but you can’t avoid, and most of the time you can compete but ideally it doesn’t end up the best way, if you’re competing internally with your team. So I feel like,for me, that’s been a big teacher.
GT: Good point. Yeah, that’s a great example! So, what I find is collaboration is usually underdeveloped in people when I do these assessments. I find that the majority of people are either really high on Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising. There some people are Competing and then the fewest number of people really have well-developed collaboration skills, and that’s with thousands of people I’ve worked with.
And then part of the reason I think it’s underdeveloped is because all the skills that is required and I’ve mentioned a little bit before, but one is a self-awareness about, you know, what does that mean to be collaborative and am I using another approach more often? It really requires the ability to listen deeply so I have to shut off what I think is important, and actually listen to the other people in the room, and really take in, deeply, what’s important to them, understand that, identify each other’s concerns, and usually you have to have a structure and a process to make that happen. Speaking up…that’s one I really like as the communication there’s been a lot of really good research lately about people not speaking up, and there can be a lot of reasons why people don’t speak up, and so either learning how… I do a lot of coaching with helping people speak up or coaching with senior leaders who created some kind of an atmosphere that people don’t want to speak up because maybe they’re so strong, competing, or they’ve got strong ideas, no one’s going to bother. So, it can be a lot of reasons for that so that’s important. Working through those differences in a positive manner, there’s skill sets to do that. Knowing when the emotions get really high—because they will—there’s again some really good research out there around the connection between emotions and the cognitive piece of conflict, and so emotions often will get really high., So having the skill set to recognize that, and to be able to calm the waters, if you will, when that happens so that it doesn’t cause a lot of disfunction and maybe long-term consequences for not dealing with that well. And then last is developing structures to minimize that process conflict. So that’s kind of a short list but those are all things that we teach in the leadership classes that we do to help people get better at that collaboration.
So in summary I hope I’ve made the point now how ubiquitous conflict is. I mean it’s at all levels and all organizations. I’ve worked in thousands of organizations and I’ve never worked in one that there is no conflict, that’s not possible, if you just talk about differences. And I would argue that in today’s world, it is even more obvious because of budget concerns or, like I said, working across organizations you know, all those issues. And so, it’s really something that we need to harness. We know that it can increase effectiveness at the individual, the team, and the organizational level, and so I can’t imagine an organization who wants to do really well not thinking that this is important in something they want to develop in their employees.
MS: So what tools do you use for conflict when you’re working with clients or organizations?
GT: So probably front and center is using the TKI which is a Thomas Kilman Conflict Mode Instrument. That’s the assessment tool that I use, and people seem—I’m probably biased, but people seem to love it, it doesn’t take very long to complete it. People quickly learn this framework that I just have been talking about and they learn which of those five modes they have the stronger preference for, and which ones they might be overusing or underusing.
So that has worked really well for, like I said, the basic framework for some self-awareness and then there’s a lot of information in there about challenges and remedies for each one of the modes, so it’s a really quick way for people to really turn their whole head around around the conflict thing. And then as you mentioned, there’s a new TKI report. I’ve been doing it manually, but we’ve been using it so much with teams, we’ve developed a new report that will probably be coming out in the Fall and so that’s a tool I’ve been using. And what I find is, kind of what you mentioned earlier, is that people don’t usually have a way of thinking or talking about conflict. Sometimes, it’s this simple, ‘Let’s just not do it.’ But I hope that, as we’ve talked today, you can see it’s so valuable. We don’t want to just miss this, right? There’s too much here to harvest, and so actually realizing how valuable it can be is extremely important for people. And then knowing really what the value of healthy conflict is and that you actually can create it in your organizations.
Other tools I use…sometimes for executive coaching we might use a combination of an MBTI, an EQI and a TKI, and there’s really nice ways that you can see kind of a bigger picture of how people might be… what their conflict style is and then how their scores come out for the EQI and for the MBTI, so that is really eye opening for people. It helps them better understand their own preferences and the ways that they deal with others, and then of course, all of those instruments have ways to what sort of action plan you have for improving. But it’s fun to do the combinations of them. I find that really fascinating.
The other thing it’s kind of interesting about the tools is that often times what I’ll find, we mostly talk about workplace conflict, but when I do one-on-one coaching, I would guess almost always, conflict in the home comes up. And so, I was actually coaching a woman the other day, and she was having a lot of trouble with her boss, and she realized she had a really high Competing style, and once we talked about that she goes, okay I can see like why we might be having trouble. And then she said, you know as a matter of fact I do the same thing at home, and I have some issues with my husband and my children and I’m starting to see that maybe the way I’m doing things isn’t the best way. So many times, they’ll see a parallel between what’s happening at work and what’s happening at home, and you don’t necessarily use the same approach at home as you do at work but sometimes it actually helps in those situations too.
And then if I’m working with senior leaders, not only will I work like coaching and helping them on whatever they’re doing or maybe I work with boards or executive teams, we work on conflict that way, but they often have the capacity to be able to manage or at least influence the climate and the culture in their organization. So, for them I kind of think, what is it that’s going on in your organization that might be having more people using a particular mode?
So let me give you a good example. I was working with an organization that does worldwide projects, infrastructure projects, in other countries, and we did this session, and they all took the instrument and they pretty much all came out what I said earlier: Avoiding, Accommodating, Compromising. And the more we talked about it they said you know the mission of our organization is to facilitate multiple agencies around these infrastructure projects and just by thinking about what our role and responsibility is in the mission of our organization, why aren’t we using Collaboration more? And as we talked about that, they said you know, the senior leaders in our organization never talk about this, there’s never been a discussion around this, we don’t do any skill building around it, and so they kind of started to kind of unravel, like, why is it that we mostly tend to be… use modes that might not the best mode for the work that we’re doing? So, it was huge for the whole organization so that started them thinking about doing some training organizational-wide, thinking about in teams as they developed and went to other nations how they could better use social collaboration skills, so it made a huge difference for that organization. So senior leaders are going to be the ones who maybe recognize that and do something organizational-wide.
So, tools and strategies for the three types of conflict. I know I wanted to cover that quickly to give some people some ideas about that. So, task conflict obviously there are all kinds of ways that you can get people to share ideas. Like I mentioned before, you could maybe give people a list and have them bring things to the meeting, maybe you figure out some way that people put, we do all kinds of ways, put things on post-it notes so that they’re anonymous and then people don’t feel as self-conscious about their ideas. There are many, many different ways you can do that.
Interpersonal, trying to figure out standards for interaction, so you know, for a new team figuring out what are the standards we want to have for how we’re going to interact with each other and a lot of people, what they do… you know the team creates them themselves and then put them on a poster, and eventually they may type them up, and that’s something they kind of live by. We’ve worked with executive teams that are pretty much dysfunctional and so we’ll often start out the first session will be, how is it you want to interact with each other? So, you get things like, you know, with respect, making sure people aren’t speaking over each other, and hearing people’s ideas without interrupting. So those also get written up and then my colleague and I will give them feedback when that seems not to be happening and then teach them how to give feedback to each other to kind of keep those as the standards of the way we’re going to interact with each other. And then there’s an article I really like a lot of interpersonal conflict that I think is really helpful . It’s called Too Hot to Handle and it’s Amy Edmonson and a colleague of hers, and they talk about ways that you can manage yourself, manage conversations, and manage relationships with a lot of good ideas around that so that’s a whole session of itself. But those are great for dealing with Interpersonal issues.
And then last is Process issues. So a lot of that, you want to do it throughout the project, but a lot of times just kind of setting up, talking about deadlines, setting expectations, looking at schedules, and getting people’s input around that. We teach people to do process checks throughout their teamwork and so that kind of helps people sometimes—say hey, stop, we need to rethink this on our process. And then you know many other ways that you can structure so that you really minimize process conflict so a lot of people haven’t thought about it and thought about ways to mitigate those problems
And then the ancillary skills, there’s a number of skills, as you know I could talk day about those, but I’ll just talk about one that I touched on briefly a minute ago, is feedback skills. So those are critically important and again it’s another skill that people aren’t necessarily very good at, either giving or receiving feedback, so my colleague and I do a lot of teaching around giving and receiving feedback. And what that allows people to do then, especially around conflict management, is…we need to be able to talk about it, so how are we doing? How could we improve? And when we need to give each other feedback around that, we do it in a very productive way, and even to the point of…you should have people seeking feedback, because a lot of times we try to avoid feedback if we have to, so you can get to a place where we’re actually seeking feedback. And then we find that that type of giving and receiving feedback, if done well, can make a huge difference on positive conflict management. So that’s another kind of just ancillary skill that’s important to conflict management.
MS: So that that story you shared previously about the managers and them asking how they could collaborate better, that was really interesting to me especially because I don’t think, until this point, I thought about how conflict can affect, or conflict style, can really be engrained in company cultures.
MS: So on that note, when it comes to four managers and leaders specifically in organizations, do you have any practical tips for managers and leaders who are dealing with maybe conflict within teams, or maybe it’s kind of like you described earlier, maybe it’s a project team where they’re only together for a couple months and then they’re going to split up. What practical things can we give the listeners and managers and leaders for dealing with conflict?
GT: I think for managers and leaders, whether it’s middle managers or maybe even senior managers, right, is this this whole thing I keep talking about today is knowing the value of good conflict management. It’s huge to really appreciate the value and then, what are we going to do about it. And so, one way to think about that is in our organization, or within the teams I’m responsible for, the departments, is there a way of thinking and talking about conflict? Is that part of the conversation that people are having? So that’s one way to kind of do a quick assessment whether it’s at the individual level, at the team level, or at the organizational level, to increase performance.
You could kind of look at what are our teams or organization’s strengths around conflict management and where seems like are some weaknesses that we have or we could improve? What kind of collaboration skills do people have at all levels because like the example I can’t gave earlier, is it that culture that you don’t really see much collaboration and what’s the cost of that? And so how might we think from a larger departmental or even larger organization level, how could we increase the skill set around that? Are people aware of challenges and remedies they have with dealing with conflict? So one is this whole idea again is if a middle manager is not aware of the way they are approaching conflict and the consequences of that, there may be all kinds of things going on within that team that they actually are creating some of that, and kind of appreciating what that means and maybe them changing some ways of doing that.
Another way it’s kind of you know there are some kind of predictable challenges. So a lot of the people I work with they only have the win-lose or what we call distributive way of thinking in their head. And so for them, it’s always someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose or there’s going to be this half and half. There’s not this way of thinking that we could all have most of all of it that true on everything, that’s true, but on many, many things you can really address most people’s interests, and some people just don’t even have that as a mindset. So that’s important to have leaders and senior leaders actually appreciate, that is huge. And realizing that middle managers sometimes don’t get that one. Like I said earlier, they’re not going to get full engagement, they’re not going to get everybody’s ideas, and if it’s bad enough, people will actually leave the organization, so that’s not what you want. So that’s important for managers to kind of do it themselves and be looking around and seeing how’s it working in other parts of their organization.
MS: We have one more question. So as an individual contributor at a company, what would be your advice to people who are caught in a conflict but might not be at that manager or leader level?
GT: I’m going give you five things that I think are really important things, kind of narrow it down a little bit.
So, one, I’m going to just keep repeating that conflict can be good, so don’t have in your mind that conflict is all bad and anything you can do to avoid it, because that is not the way to approach it. So, knowing that is really important.
And then the second one is having some self-awareness so we’re going to recommend that you use some instrument, you know we think TKI is a good one, to be able to know what your preferences are and maybe the preferences of people on your team. You know I’ll mention real quickly too… recently I had someone in my class, the one I was saying I was having trouble with the boss and she took the instrument and of course, it’s a really nice entree to go home, and go to the boss and say, “Hey I took this class, and I took this instrument on conflict, and guess what I found out?” And she shared this with her boss, and then she also shared some of the things that she learned, and it was a fabulous conversation that they had, that number one, she was kind of what I call the leading up in some way, she was able to teach her boss something about conflict management., They were able to figure out what the boss’s style was, and what the employee’s style was, and then have conversations on how they could better work together. So that’s some added benefits from having that tool is that it actually can allow you to go home and have conversations with a team or with a boss or co-worker. And then the other is to think about, like I said, the other person, like what do you think is their particular approach, and how might those two approaches be detrimental to decision-making in your organization, so that’s kind of important and maybe have these conversations.
And then the fourth one is assessing the situation. So, as I mentioned earlier, what are the attributes of the situation you’re in? Is it an important issue? Is it not very important? How much time do you have? How much stress is there within the group? So all of those, answering those questions, are going to tell you what might be the best mode for this particular time? So, appreciating that. And then last is…my mantra is, always keep working on those collaborative skills, those are always going to come in good use for you and it’s something…a lot of these leadership things you it’s not a won and done. You don’t learn it, let’s say, at the entry level and say that that’s going to take you through the rest of your career. You know, as we get and more senior and organizations the issues become more gray, it’s less black and white, and so the conflict is different, and the number of maybe constituents you have to deal with, so it gets in some ways, more difficult, not easier, so it’s something you do have to keep working on throughout your career.
And kind of last…kind of wrapping things up I think is…I hope people see, at least I really think, is conflict management is a performance multiplier. If you kind of understand these principles, are self-aware, working with other people either at the team level or larger, it can make a gigantic difference in the performance in your organization, so you can really increase engagement, all the things that we want in an organization
So I’m hoping that some people learn some things today, that it sparks some interest in people, and maybe they have further questions or things they want to explore around this topic.
MS: Thank you so much Gail, Dr Thomas, for joining us. It was fantastic. We love to hear everything that you had to say about conflict, and we are eagerly awaiting the new TKI Conflict Team report, so thank you!
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