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Kenneth Thomas & Ralph Kilmann: Conflict Modes

 

Kenneth Thomas & Ralph Kilmann - Conflict Modes
Kenneth Thomas & Ralph Kilmann – Conflict Modes

Kenneth Thomas

Kenneth Thomas gained his BA from Pomona College in 1968, quickly becoming a research Fellow at Harvard for a year. He then started a PhD in Administrative Sciences at Purdue University, whilst holding a junior teaching position at University of California, Los Angeles. It was at UCLA, that Thomas met Ralph Kilmann, who joined the doctoral program.

Ken Thomas stayed at UCLA until 1977. He then went on to hold a series of academic appointments; Temple University (1977-81), University of Pittsburg (where Kilmann was then teaching) from 1981-6, and then the US Naval Postgraduate School. He retired from academic work in 2004.

Ralph Kilmann

Ralph Kilmann studied for his BS in Graphic Arts Management (graduated 1968) and his MS in Industrial Administration (1970) at Carnegie Mellon University. He then went to UCLA to study for a PhD in Behavioural Science. There, Kenneth Thomas was part of the faculty whilst himself working on a PhD.

Kilmann rapidly became interested in Thomas’ research into conflict and conflict modes. They shared a dissatisfaction with the methodology of Blake and Mouton’s version, though they liked the underlying styles and structure. Kilmann focused his studies on the methodologies for creating a robust assessment.

Publishing the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory

Together, they published their work in 1974. Partly by luck and partly good judgement, they chose not to include their 30-question assessment inventory in the academic paper they published. Instead, they took it to a publisher, who made it a widely-used tool. It is still published by the successor (by acquisition) of that original publisher.

Over the years, they have worked with their publisher to use the vast data sets now available to increase the reliability of the instrument, and extend its use to multiple cultures.

The questionnaire has 30 pairs of statements, of equal social desirability, from which you would select one that best represents what you would do. It takes around 15 minutes to complete. It is not a psychometric and requires no qualification to administer and interpret. So, it can be readily used to support training and coaching interventions around conflict with groups and individuals.

The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann are neither the first nor last to categorise your possible responses but, measured by popularity, they are by far the most successful. Like Jay Hall before them and Ron Kraybill later, their model looks at our responses on two axes.

The first axis is ‘Assertiveness’, or the extent to which we focus on our own agenda. The second is ‘Cooperation’, or our focus on our relationship with the other person.

 

Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes
Thomas Kilmann Conflict Modes

The Five Conflict Modes

As with other models, there are five Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes.

Competing

A high degree of assertive behaviour, with little focus on the relationship, is referred to as Competing. In this mode, we seek to win above all else. It is a suitable style when success is vital, you know you are right, and there is a time pressure.

Accommodating

The opposite extreme is Accommodating. Highly cooperative and non-assertive behaviour is useful when you realise the other person is right, or when preserving the relationship or building emotional credit is foremost in your strategy.

Avoiding

When we want to invest little effort in the conflict, we use the Avoiding mode. With no effort deployed in either getting what we want or building a relationship, this is appropriate for trivial conflicts, or when we judge it is the wrong time to deal with the conflict. This may be due to hot tempers or a lack of sufficient preparation.

Compromising

The good old 50-50 solution is Compromising. When you and I give up equal portions of our objectives, neither gets what we want, but it seems fair. Likewise, whilst our relationship is not optimised, neither is it much harmed. Compromise suits a wide range of scenarios.

Collaborating

What can be better than compromise? When the matter is sufficiently important, it is worth putting in the time and effort to really get what you want … and build your relationship at the same time. This is the Collaborating mode, sometimes called “win-win”. Reserve it for when the outcomes justify the investment it takes.

Critique of the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory

The Thomas Kilmann Instrument has its critics. Many users find the forced choice questionnaire frustrating – sometimes wanting to select both options; sometimes neither. There are also concerns about applying the examples to users’ real-world contexts. Unlike the Kraybill tool it lacks distinction between normal and stress conditions.

Accepting these weaknesses, the model finds a range of useful applications, even beyond conflict; in team development, change management and negotiation, to name three. Above all, consider it because most users value the insights it gives them.

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George Eastman: Visionary Philanthropist

George Eastman is mainly remembered as the father of Kodak, seller of cheap cameras and the film-stock you use for your holiday snaps. Yet I am aware that many adults reading this will only be dimly aware of the days when you had to get your photos developed. The ability to do that, however, was a huge step forward. Who knows what Eastman would have made of the iPhone and Instagram.

George Eastman

Short Biography

George Eastman was born in upstate New York in 1854 and his father died when he was still at school. This meant leaving at 14, to get a job at an insurance company, but at the same time he studied accounting at home, with the hope of getting a better paid job; which he did.

In 1878, while working at the Rochester Savings Bank, he was introduced to photography, buying a load of then state-of-the-art equipment and learning how to use it. The big problem he saw was the need to develop images quickly, while the emulsion on the photographic plate was wet. His genius was to take a suggestion of using a dry, gelatine emulsion and find a way to make it work. In 880, he patented this innovation and one other: a machine to mass produce dry plates.

Eastman gave up his job at the bank and, with a new partner, George Strong, he founded The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1884. Eight years later, this was to be renamed The Eastman Kodak Company. In the time until his death, in 1932, Eastman proved himself a pioneer in six areas of management (at least), as well as a massive donor to academic, cultural and medical institutions across the US and in Europe.

In the final years of his life, Eastman suffered agonising pain from a spinal disorder that left him inactive and increasingly depressed. In March 1932, he committed suicide with a single gunshot through his heart. He left a short message: ‘My work is done – Why wait? GE.’

Six Pioneering Principles

1. Democratising Technology

When he took up photography, it was an expensive and complex niche pastime, that required much equipment and many skills. Eastman saw the potential to make it easier and less expensive. He took a new technology and, throughout its life, was actively involved in its maturation. Eastman wanted to ‘make the camera as convenient as the pencil’.

2. Crisis Management

Early on, some of the dry plates Eastman distributed were faulty. Without skipping a beat, he recalled everything and replaced them, using up all of his new business’s financial reserves. He recognised the value of reputation above all else:

‘Making good on those plates took our last dollar. But what we had left was more important – reputation’

3. Humanistic Management

At around the time when Frederick Winslow Taylor wanted to apply the principles of science to management, to create scientific management, Eastman took a different tack. It was a tack that would not become mainstream until Elton Mayo effectively knocked Scientific Management over and replaced it, in the 1930s, with Humanistic Management. In 1899, he started distributing a ‘wage dividend’ to all his workers, rewarding them all for their efforts in proportion to the dividend paid on the company’s shares. In 1919, he went further, handing a third of the company’s assets to his employees, and instituting life insurance, a disability benefit scheme, and a retirement plan.

4. Brand Recognition

The name Kodak is a made-up work – not a contraction, a translation or an acronym. It just sounded good to Eastman, who thought the K sound was strong (many English language comedians will also say that the K sound sounds funny – but not as funny as Q). He also chose the distinctive yellow and red colours of the logo. And the cherry on the cake was an innovative slogan, ‘you push the button, we do the rest’ that promised a new level of simplicity.

5. ‘Trust us’ marketing

That slogan is the basis of a style of marketing that is now commonplace: you can trust us, we’ll take care of it.

  • ‘Don’t leave home without it’
  • ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a…
  • ‘You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world’
  • ‘It does what it says on the tin’

You identify the brands.

6. Black-box Service Offering

No longer did people need to understand the equipment they were using. To take a photo, you needed a simple camera and a roll of film. Technologists would sort out the optics and the chemistry for you. We now live in a world where everyone from politicians to crazed loonies derides aspects of science, without stopping for a moment to wonder how a mobile phone can possibly make a voice and visual link to somebody thousands of miles away, access a billion articles, take still and moving photos, as well as add up your shopping basket, store your shopping list and ring an alarm when it is time to go.

 

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Handling Complaints

The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.


Handle a complaint well and you will turn an unhappy customer into a wild fan of your business.  Handle it badly and not only will they never return – they’ll tell their friends (10 to 15 of them according to The Handling Complaints Pocketbook).

When Range Rover’s new model was plagued with faults in the 1980s, Managing Director, Mike Hodgkinson, sent a simple message to every dealer.  As soon as anyone comes in to complain, offer them the chance to drive a new car off the forecourt; there and then.  In the year it took them to fix the problem, only one customer took them up on the offer.  But the press went wild about their customer service commitment.

People know things go wrong with products. They know that services falter from time to time. They know you are human. So what they want is not perfection: they want to be listened to. By taking their complaint seriously, Range Rover signalled that customers were being listened to, so they were happy to let the company work on their problems.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

People will work hard to make your life hell if you fail to take their complaint seriously.  How much does it cost to put something right?  A bit of time, a bit of stock at cost price?  Nowhere near the cost of dealing with an endless stream of calls, letters and visits.  Add to that our increasing ability to publicise our frustrations and disappointments on the internet.  Invest immediately in making things right.  That way, you avoid the potential cost of the complaint and maybe win a new friend.

In fact, I would be tempted to aim to super-please: don’t just make things right, but make a generous gesture, that leaves people talking about that with their friends.

The Psychology of Customer Complaints?  I’m OK

Sometimes customers do complain – and sometimes you will deserve it.  What can you do when the mistake you made is minor, but the complaint is a big one?

One tool of basic business psychology points us to what may be going on – the customer thinks they are better than you are.  In their mind, they are a good person, cruelly wronged.  You, on the other hand, are stupid, malicious, or inadequate… in their mind.

Your customer is saying to themselves:

“I’m OK; you’re not OK”

Why do some people turn a complaint into a conflict, and then fail to deal with that conflict effectively?  That’s simple: they take the other tack and try to prove to the aggrieved customer that the customer is “Not OK”, and that they themselves are clearly “OK”.

This attempt to get one-up on the customer is doomed to fail.  Would you go back to do business with someone who showed that attitude?

The secret to defusing the potential conflict is to show that you too are “OK”, by demonstrating that, like them, you recognise that the situation is unacceptable.

This means building rapport, by empathising with their point of view, then demonstrating that you want to solve the problem in a way that is intelligent, well-meaning and capable.

Further Reading 

Two pocketbooks you may like:

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