Conflict/ Opportunity


Did you squirm a bit when  you read that word?  Truth is that most of us probably do; when we think of conflict we think of  it in a destructive framework.  We think of how conflict at some point within a relationship or a group ultimately resulted in unworkable divisions.  It’s easy to forget those times that conflict, when sagely managed, resulted in an outcome better than the sum of its parts.  Yet, when used wisely, conflict can be constructive and provides a catalyst for change.  As hard as it may be to consider, conflict can serve as an asset to a group or organization.

Understanding the role and utility of conflict is a key leadership principle, and one that we spent several hours on last week at the AAMC Women’s Mid-Career Professional Development Course.  I’ll confess that I immediately had a bit of a visceral reaction to spending the better part of an afternoon discussing conflict.  Our homework for this session was to complete the Thomas-Killmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to measure behavior in conflict situations.  The TKI places people on two spectrums- one about assertiveness, and another about cooperativeness.  While I knew from the outset that I would not end up in the “competing” corner of the matrix (high assertiveness, low cooperativeness), I was dismayed to end up in the “avoiding” corner (low assertiveness, low cooperativeness).  That’s not how I see myself, and I hope that’s not how I am generally seen by those I work around the most often.

I responded to the TKI based upon one of the many settings I am expected to function in, and it’s one that I honestly consider dysfunctional.  It’s an environment in which I have, to use another phrase from the course, been “seen but not heard, or heard but dismissed” on a routine basis.  It’s tough to engage when you’re convinced that your thoughts will be immediately devalued, right?  Fortunately, I had a teammate who was listening generously when I described the environment and my choice to essentially not participate by being avoidant.  Jennifer wisely honed in on my description and simply asked, “Do you think that you behave the same in other settings where you have leadership roles?”  She then also suggested that I re-take the TKI based upon another of my settings.

Voilá.  I moved immediately from the unassertive/ uncooperative corner of the matrix to the corner that I view as “win-win” (collaborating- low on assertion, high on cooperation).  When I’m not in that mode, I tend to be a compromiser, with a rare tendency to pull out my bossy-pants and become competitive.  In truth, it’s only right that sometimes I do go into competitive mode as a surgeon-  when it’s a life-or-death matter it’s incumbent upon us to be assertive and steer the ship.

So, kudos to my wise teammate for pointing out to me the possibility that conflict style may be a combination of personal predisposition + situation.  I was also gratified to find that tidbit of wisdom on an Overview of the TKI.  I’m also trying to make people aware that you may deal with conflict differently based upon environment; I’m a clear example of trying to simply get by in one and trying to thrive in another.  I’m not sure it’s the “right” answer in the greater scheme of things, but it’s the one that keeps me sane.

What are your thoughts on conflict in the workplace?  How to you manage conflict with colleagues or team members?  Have you taken an instrument like the TKI, and if so, what did you learn from it?

Oh, and for those who celebrate…Frohe Weihnachten!

Some timely follow-up from the HBR blog