How Can IT Effectively Use the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes?


For IT leaders, conflict management is par for the course. John Hackston, head of thought leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company, shares how applying the Thomas Kilmann conflict modes could help IT leaders improve their conflict resolution tactics.

Within the same day a CIO may deal with arguments and personality clashes surrounding prioritization of resources, technical approaches, resistance to change, communication breakdowns, or any number of issues. None of this is showing signs of slowing down. Recent researchOpens a new window by the Myers-Briggs Company suggests that the time spent on workplace conflict has doubled since 2008. 

Of course, workplace conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing; conflict is ultimately just a situation where the needs of two people appear incompatible. Our study showed that in the workplace, conflict can strengthen relationships or harm them, build trust or destroy it, lead to innovation or shut down new ideas, clear the air or allow anger and resentment to build. 

To achieve positive outcomes and avoid negative ones, it is important that IT leaders adapt their approach to fit the needs of the specific conflict situation they are dealing with. This isn’t easy, as humans are creatures of habit. We tend to approach any conflict in the same way, regardless of the situation or of what we want to achieve.

The TKI Framework

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKIOpens a new window )  model describes how we typically deal with conflict, depending on how assertive we are (how much we want to satisfy our own needs) and how cooperative (how much we want to satisfy the other person’s needs). There are five conflict modes:

  • Avoiding: not attempting to satisfy either our needs or the other person’s. Sidestepping the issue, withdrawing. Useful when you need to buy more time or avoid spending time and effort on a trivial issue.
  • Accommodating: satisfying the other person’s needs at the expense of yours. Useful when the issue is much more important to the other person than to you, when you realize you are wrong, or when you must defer to authority.
  • Competing: satisfying your own needs at the expense of the other person’s. Pursuing your own goals, seeking to win. Useful in a crisis, when time is short when unpopular decisions must be made, or when you are very sure you are right.
  • Collaborating: working with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the concerns of both parties. Useful when both parties trust each other and are prepared to invest the time and effort to achieve a win-win solution, especially when both sides of the argument are important.
  • Compromising: satisfying some (not all) of your needs and some (not all) of the other person’s. Splitting the difference, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground. Useful in resolving issues of moderate importance when both parties are equally powerful and the issue equally important to both, and for quick, expedient solutions.

Anyone can use all five conflict-handling modes, but most use some more often than others. Because they’ve developed more skills in those modes, they tend to rely on them more readily. In fact, many people tend to rely on a single mode for conflict management. 

Such a singular approach may work well in some situations but is unlikely to be the best in all. However, once an individual has identified their favorite mode(s) and becomes aware of the other ways they can deal with conflict, they can modify their behavior to suit the conflict situations in which they find themselves.

See More: How to Communicate and Collaborate Seamlessly

Conflict Modes and Leaders in IT

Over the years, many people working in the IT sector have taken the TKI assessment. Data from over 39,000 individuals shows that non-managers in IT are most likely to have Avoiding as their most favored style. In contrast, managers and leaders are more likely to employ Competing or Compromising. 


       Source:  The Myers-Briggs Company archive, 2023

When a manager seeks to push through their views using Competing, but a non-manager seeks to avoid the conflict, this may result in dysfunctional conversations. The manager may be frustrated that they can’t pin down the other person to an agreement; the non-manager may feel pressured and not listened to, leading to disengagement and low morale. The situation may be worse still when more senior leaders are involved; the percentage with Competing as their favorite mode increases at higher levels. 

  Source:  The Myers-Briggs Company archive, 2023

A leader who knows their own default conflict style and has an awareness of how the styles work in others can adapt their behavior to suit the situation. For example, a Competing manager may decide to use Accommodating if their goal is to build a relationship or to involve, empower and develop one of their reports. The alternative, treating every interaction as a competition, will be effective in some cases but counter-productive in others.

High Stakes for Better Conflict Management Skills

In our research, 98% of respondents said conflict handling was an extremely or very important leadership or management skill, and ‘my manager’ was the most common response to the question ‘who is responsible for managing conflict at work.’ While most managers were seen as handling conflict at least adequately, over a fifth were said to be poor or very poor.

People reporting to these managers had lower levels of job satisfaction, saw conflict more negatively, and felt less included and supported. Becoming aware of one’s own conflict style, and being able to flex and adapt where needed, is likely to be especially useful for managers in IT, leading to more productive conversations, more positive outcomes, and more engaged and productive staff.

See More: Leveraging AI for Conflict-Free Employee Health 

The Wider Picture

When disagreements or conflicts arise between IT and other parts of the business, it’s useful to identify your primary goal for any interaction and use the appropriate style; don’t just jump in, without thinking, with your usual approach. 

For example, consider a common conflict scenario involving a lack of alignment between IT and other business units regarding priorities, resources, or timelines for a project. For example, the marketing department may want to launch a campaign that requires an IT investment, but you believe their approach may be shortsighted, requiring resources that, while meeting an immediate need, do not deliver value over time. 

To maximize the probability of a positive outcome, and minimize the chances of this damaging the interdepartmental relationship, follow this  quick guide:

  • Avoiding if your goal is to delay, perhaps to let things cool down or because another issue needs to be addressed first.
  • Accommodating if your goal is to let the other person have their way, perhaps because they care much more about the issue than you, or to show that you are being reasonable, to empower or develop them, or to build a relationship. If, for example, the marketing initiative is viewed as highly critical by the CEO, this may be the best course.
  • Competing if your goal is to win, perhaps because a quick decision has to be made and you are certain you are right, to assert your position or, in some environments, to protect yourself, or for safety-critical issues. If, for example, the expenditure is going to seriously limit other critical future expenditures, and the payoff is questionable, this may be the best approach.
  • Collaborating if your goal is a win-win solution, perhaps because both sides of the argument are important, where both parties trust each other and are prepared to invest time and effort.
  • Compromising if your goal is to find the middle ground and achieve a quick, pragmatic, workable solution where ethics or values are not involved. Perhaps there are alternate technology solutions that achieve the same objective but at a lower cost while also providing ongoing value for the organization.

Everybody has choices in a conflict. Be aware that all five conflict-handling modes are available to you, and use the one that best fits your needs.

What conflict resolution strategy do you tend to use most often? Share with us on FacebookOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , and LinkedInOpens a new window . We’d love to know!

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