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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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Mary Parker Follett: Management Visionary

‘Ahead of her time’ seems to be the most appropriate epiphet to apply to Mary Parker Follett. And many have done so: Peter Drucker described her as a ‘prophet of management’, while Warren Bennis has said:

‘Just about everything written today about
leadership and organizations comes from
Mary Parker Follett’s lectures and writings.’

Mary Parker Follett

 

Brief Biography

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868, into a wealthy Quaker family in Boston. She was an exceptional scholar and a polymath, attending university at Harvard (the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women – later Radcliffe College), during which time she also spent a year at Newnham College, at Cambridge University (in England). Although denied a PhD by Harvard, she studied widely in law, economics, politics, philosophy, and history. While at Cambridge University she prepared and delivered a paper that was to become, in 1918, her first book: ‘The New State’. It was about social evolution and group-based democratic government. It was reviewed by former US president, Theodore Roosevelt and remains in print today.

After studying, Follett spent the next thirty or so years (from 1890 to 1924) focusing on voluntary social work in Boston. She innovated, being the first person in the US to use a school as an out-of-hours community centre; a model that was widely reproduced across the country.

However, what interests us most at the Management Pocketblog is her work from 1924, when she turned her focus to industry. She wrote that it is ‘the most important field of human activity’ and that:

‘management is the most fundamental element in industry’

She became an early management consultant and was much in demand by industry leaders and academic institutions. She spent her time advising and lecturing, up until her death, at a relatively young age, in  December 1933.

Sadly, her work is not widely known of in the western world, despite notable figures like Drucker, Bennis and Sir Peter Parker praising her to the rafters. This is despite the fact that she anticipated a wide range of issues and thinking that is still today presented as modern and aspirational for our large organisations.

Follett’s Visionary Thinking

Let’s count the ways that Follett was ahead of her time in the field of management. I get to eight.

1. Humanistic Approach to Organisations

Growing up in the time of FW Taylor, and ahead of the work of Elton Mayo, Follett rejected the functional approach to industry in favour of her emphasis on what we now call humanistic principle. She was a progressive, rational humanist in the management field as well as in the political and social arenas, and puts me very much in mind of George Eastman, whom I also described as a visionary. She very much anticipated the work of Douglas McGregor.

2. Empowerment

Follett rejected the idea that managers and staff have fundamentally different roles and capabilities. Instead, she saw that an organisation’s success would come from recognising the part that each has to play in delivering its services or creating its products. She advocated giving power to where it matters.

3. Joined up Business (… and hence, Re-engineering and Lean?)

This created a need for a joined up organisation, where activities, departments, functions and people are properly co-ordinated – both across the organisation and from the bottom to the top (and vice versa). She referred to the relationships between staff and managers and among functions as ‘reciprocal relating’. A leader’s role is therefore to see the whole organisation and the ‘relation between all the different factors in a situation’. Is it too much of a stretch to see this as anticipating the mission of re-engineering and lean management to close gaps in process flow? I don’t think so.

4. Group Dynamics and Team Working – Participative Leadership

The equal balance of power between management and employees leads to the need for team co-operation and that, she suggested, develops a true sense of responsibility in workers. To me, it also demands a model of leadership that Robert Greenleaf was to call ‘Servant Leadership’. Follett did not herself go as far, but identified ‘Participative Leadership’ as the style that involves a whole team in creating products and delivering services.

5. Personal Responsibility

Tying together empowerment, co-ordination and group working is the sense of responsibility they inculcate in workers. Follett again anticipated McGregor’s Theory Y, by arguing that it is this which most develops people.

6.Management Training

If we are to delegate greater responsibility to our people, we must do so well. Follett was an early advocate of management training, believing when many did not that the leadership aspects can be taught.

7. Transformational Leadership

In a paper called ‘The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis’, Edith Rusch notes the unacknowledged similarities between James McGregor Burns’ articulation of ‘Transformational Leadership’ and Follett’s writings. She presents a compelling argument that Follett not only anticipated the ideas of transformational leadership, but that she was the first to put them forward and even used the term.

8. Win-Win Negotiation and Conflict Management

One particular interest of Follett’s was conflict. She suggested three approaches of domination, compromise and integration, that  Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann would later refer to as competing, compromising, and collaborating. Her thinking on the benefits and mechanisms of creating integrated ‘win-win’ resolutions is rich and sophisticated. In her suggestion that we uncover the real conflict and get to each party’s deeper aims, and then seek to satisfy those, she anticipated a lot of the thinking in best-selling negotiation book, ‘Getting to Yes’.

My one Favourite concept…

from all of Follett’s writing is this: the idea of ‘circular response’. This is that our behaviour helps to create the situation to which we respond. It is the idea of a feedback loop of self reinforcing interpretations and behaviour. I don’t doubt that the essence of this very modern sounding idea goes back to the ancients and classical writings of many cultures. But her articulation of it (and of the compelling phrase ‘circular response’) is so clear, that it has got me thinking.

Thank you…

to Mary Parker Follett. Before I started researching this blog, I knew nothing of her (unlike almost all other management thinker subjects). I had hoped that, being less known, there would be little to read and writing this would be quick. Far from it. But I have gained a lot from learning about Follett, and I hope you will too.

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Handling Conflict

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.


At some point in every manager’s daily life, you will be faced with the need to resolve conflict, either:

  • Conflict between two of your colleagues
  • Conflict between a colleague and someone else (a supplier, customer or distant colleague)
  • Conflict between a colleague and yourself

Two of the most valuable conflict management models have already been covered in the Management Pocketblog.

Exercise 1: Review Ellen Raider’s AEIOU Model

As a major figure in researching conflict, Morton Deutsch should be your first port of call. Read through the Pocketblog: Conflict: as simple as AEIOU. What are the direct lessons for you, from this blog?

Exercise 2: Review the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes

The most widely used model for understanding your choices when you approach conflict is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes model, which you can read about in the Pocketblog: Is this Relationship going to Work? Look at the five modes and ask yourself which ones you tend to over-use and which you tend to under-use.

Exercise 3: Review the basics of Mediation

If you ever need to mediate between conflicts, then the Pocketblog: Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right will help you grasp the basics of the role, setting out six basic steps. Which steps do you do well, naturally, and which do you tend to skimp on?

All of this reading back should allow you to start to form your own ideas about what makes for productive handling of conflict. For me, there are six elements. I will offer three tips under each.

Element 1: Attitudes

  1. Respectful of differences: conflict arises out of differences – as soon as you respect those differences, conflict softens.
  2. Open Mind: try to see the other person’s point of view and what matters most to them: Respect that.
  3. People are not the problem – while behaviours may be unwelcome, distinguish the person from their attitudes, needs and behaviours.

Element 2: Discovery

  1. What do you know already: inventory.
  2. What do you not know: shopping list.
  3. What are the causes: a step towards solutions.

Element 3: Core Skills

  1. Listening: until you really hear, you cannot respect or discover the truth.
  2. Language: clear, straightforward and respectful use of pronouns (‘I’ takes responsibility: ‘you’ sounds accusatory).
  3. Calm: find ways to calm yourself so you can control your responses and remain objective.

Element 4: Strategies

  1. Spot the signs of rising tension early: move in to defuse the conflict before it gets properly started.
  2. Keep working: if you break contact, conflict will escalate in the gaps.
  3. Welcome contributions: make all contributions welcome by inviting, acknowledging and valuing every effort the other person makes.

Element 5: Support

  1. Ask for it: whenever you need it.
  2. Offer it: whenever you can.
  3. Match it: to the needs of the situation – is facilitation or mediation or arbitration the right approach?

Element 6: Cautions

  1. Avoid the mindset of trying to ‘win’. Look instead for a resolution that both parties will value.
  2. Right and wrong: are rarely appropriate categories – if they were, the conflict would be far easier to resolve.
  3. Blame, punishment and retribution: have no role. In the film Papillon, Leon Darga says ‘blame is for god and small children.’

Further Reading 

  1. The Resolving Conflict Pocketbook
  2. Discipline & Grievance Pocketbook
  3. The Mediation Pocketbook
  4. The free ACAS Advisory booklet – Managing conflict at work
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Is This Relationship Going To Work?

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen, working with people who aren’t our natural soul-mates. Whether the relationship is Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, or two colleagues sharing an office, conflict is probably going to arise at some point in the relationship.

Messrs Clegg and Cameron are both assertive and persuasive individuals who are used to winning the argument. But if they are going to work successfully together they will need to use a range of styles to manage potential conflict between themselves and their party members.

Five Approaches to Managing Conflict

Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann describe five approaches we can take to handling any particular conflict:

Compete – we aim to win.

Accommodate – our priority is to keep the other person happy.

Compromise – we do a deal. It’s not perfect but we can both live with it. At least in the short term.

Avoid – we take the view that it’s better not to open the can of worms, so we don’t address the issue.

Collaborate – we look for a solution that fully meets our needs, and also satisfies other person. A true ‘win/win’.

Which One To Use?

Looking at these five styles, you would think that the ‘right’ approach to conflict would always be to collaborate. However, there are a couple of problems with collaboration:

  1. It can take a long time – you have to sit down, explore the other person’s position, analyse the underlying needs and concerns then try to thrash out a resolution. It’s great when you have the time (and the energy) to do this. But sometimes there’s a deadline. Sometimes the markets are showing signs of impatience.
  2. It isn’t always possible. For example, when you and your colleague have fundamentally opposing views or values.

The trick is actually knowing which type of approach is most appropriate in any situation, and consciously adapting your natural preference for one of the five styles.

T-KStyles

So here’s the deal

One of the secrets of handling conflict successfully, whether it’s in a shared office or the House of Commons, is choosing the right strategy.

Management Pocketbooks you may enjoy

TacklingDiffConvsFor more on handling conflict, and coping with difficult conversations generally, take a look at Peter English’s new Pocketbook, The Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook.

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Other Pocketbooks you might like include:

You may also be interested to know …

The Thomas-Kilmann model is also available as a self-scoring psychometric instrument. For global sales, check out the CPP website, or for UK sales, check out OPP’s website.

Author: Peter English

This article was written by Peter English, author of:

The Tackling Difficult Conversations Pocketbook and

The Succeeding at Interviews Pocketbook.

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