Conflict Resolution in the Workplace

As human beings, we are no stranger to conflict. We experience it in our everyday lives with our family and friends and may have well-honed strategies to tackle such situations. We see conflict unfold on the world stage at every turn. Yet in our professional lives, experiencing conflict in the workplace can cause a great deal of both angst and anxiety. Workplaces bring people from all walks of life together. It’s normal to expect a diverse workforce to bring with it, diverse opinions, diverse approaches, diverse outlooks. And sometimes, this can create disagreements. 

Ralph Kilmann, co-author of the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument writes: “Once we accept that conflict itself is neutral, we can then see that its goodness or badness is entirely based on how it is handled. Indeed, any conflict can be addressed with respect and dignity or can be approached with anger and malice. But even more important, conflict can be a great opportunity to create better solutions to old problems.” 

A brief introduction to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

The TKI has been long relied upon by HR Professionals, Coaches, Counsellors and the like as the ‘gold standard’ for conflict resolution.  

Essentially, the model offers five different modes to handle conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. These five behavioural choices are defined by two underlying dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness. In essence, the five conflict-handling modes are different combinations of trying to get your needs met (low, medium, and high) and trying to get the other person’s needs met (low, medium, and high).1

1Kilmann, Ralph, “An Overview of the TKI Assessment Tool”,


Tips for managing conflict in the workplace: 2

  1. Familiarise yourself with the five conflict-handling modes. 
    • Avoidance – if you choose to avoid, how do you do that in a manner that respects and honours the other people in the situation?
    • Competition – If you choose to compete, how do you get your way in a manner that engenders trust, respect, and a supportive culture (assuming you want those relationships to last)?
    • Compromise – How do you compromise so the door stays open for collaboration in the future, especially if the topic becomes more important to both of you?
    • Collaboration – This can work if there a basis of trust between the parties, and effective interpersonal communication skills to start a collaborative conversation. 
    • Accommodation – Consider if you willing to make a small sacrifice on your part to do a much greater good for someone else? Or perhaps this is a way to repair damage you may have caused, by apologising or making reparations.
  1. Develop the ability to assess the key attributes of a situation. These may include:
  • level of stress, complexity of issue, importance of issue, availability of time to address conflict, level of trust between both persons, quality of listening and communication skills, support from cultural norms and the reward system, and importance of the relationship to both people. 
  • Knowing this will influence which mode of conflict resolution you adopt.
  1. Use the mode that best fits the situation
    • Role playing different conflict situations can be useful way to practise each of the different modes of conflict resolution.
  1. Switch to a different mode as the situation changes.
    • With practice, you will become adept at better reading situations of conflict and deciding which mode to adopt, and when to change modes when the need arises.

The TKI is a tried and tested method for conflict resolution preferred by many professionals. To newcomers, it may seem overwhelming at first, being very theoretical in nature. It is one thing to study the theory, and the costs/benefits behind each of the conflict resolution modes, and the typical situations which may warrant choosing one mode over another. However, simply knowing the theory is not enough on its own. The ability to implement it effectively, efficiently, and with dignity and respect within a real life situation will be the true test to driving a positive resolution between parties. Training your team in these areas is as critical to success as is technical training on business strategies, the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Feel free to contact us if you would like to know more about the TKI model or need assistance with resolving workplace conflict effectively.

Nick Hedges is the founder of Resolve HR, a Sydney-based HR consultancy specialising in providing workplace advice to managers and business owners. He recently published his first book, “Is Your Team Failing Or Kicking Goals – Take Control Of Your People And Their Performance”. It is a practical response to the most pressing HR challenges, which can be found at

Disclaimer: The contents do not constitute legal advice and does not cater for individual circumstances.   The information contained herein is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon as such.

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