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Dancing with porcupines: the art of skilful conflict handling

Dancing with porcupines: the art of skilful conflict handling

In any aspect of life, especially in leadership, conflict is inevitable. The key lies not in avoiding it but in addressing it wisely and constructively. This online workshop, hosted on the FiftyFour platform, features John Yip discussing the nuances of conflict, different approaches to handling it, and the potential conflict holds for fostering enhanced collaboration and outcomes.

The gift of conflict

‘We can look at conflict from two very different vantage points,’ explains John. ‘On one hand, it can be demotivating and hinder risk-taking. Confrontational people are often viewed as troublemakers, especially if you’re trying to lead people in a certain direction.’

‘While this can be true,’ John adds, ‘there is another way we can look at conflict – and this is to see it as something positive and productive, a tool that can be leveraged for the organisation’s good. It’s in the chaffing of differing opinions that we’re sharpened and honed, in the friction of opposing perspectives that we discover fresh energy and ideas, flag underlying emotions, unearth potentialities.’

The benefits of storming

Bruce Tuckman, in his Team Development Model, emphasises the importance of constructive conflict for cultivating high-performing teams. In this model, he identifies five stages that he believes are essential to achieving effectiveness and unity as a team. One of the early stages along this developmental journey, he notes, is the ‘storming’ stage.

‘Until now, the team has been getting to know each other,’ he explains. ‘People are generally excited, and conflicts have been minimal. But as time goes on, we might see some disagreements popping up. Personal agendas and power struggles may come to the surface, leading to divisions like cliques or splinter groups.’

This, he suggests, is not something to shy away from but to leverage as a helpful diagnostic tool. ‘It’s here’, he says, ‘that you can start to observe how people are experiencing your leadership. Are they jockeying for roles or power, and if so, why? Is there a sense buy-in to the vision, and if not, why not? You can begin to discuss these matters and address core issues, while facilitating opportunities for the team to grow their communication and interpersonal skills,’ explains John. ‘The key lies in recognising the root causes of conflict and harnessing this tension to not only promote more authentic work but also cultivate more authentic teams.’

Five styles of conflict management

While circumstances and leadership contexts can influence it, explains John, leaders typically have a default approach to handling conflict. According to the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Management model, this behaviour can be summed up in five main responses, which can be seen below.

Each of these responses, he says, is shaped by the unique interplay between assertiveness and cooperativeness. Assertiveness is the extent to which you pursue your own interests to satisfy your concern. Cooperativeness, on the other hand, is the extent to which you consider others’ interests. ‘Depending on the unique combination of these characteristics’, he explains, ‘we find ourselves responding to conflict in one of the following ways.’

1. Competing

As Kilmann suggests, this is a ‘winner takes all’ approach to conflict management.  While effective in the short run, this style can cause damage in the long run, especially when a leadership transition is needed. ‘It’s difficult for a highly assertive leader to step down or step sideways in the organisation,’ says John. ‘Learning to be number two requires embracing a different mindset, where your win is not at the expense of someone else’s loss.’

2. Accommodating

Accommodating, on the other hand, is the opposite of competing. ‘This conflict style,’ says John, ‘is all about sacrificing your interests to satisfy the other party. It requires selflessness, aiming to maintain harmony and preserve relationships.’ However, he notes, overusing accommodation can be unhelpful, leading to a sort of ‘lose-win’ situation. He says, ‘There’s an element of self-sacrifice involved, which can be mistaken with a selfless generosity. But staying quiet, complying for the sake of ‘peace’, ultimately undermines the team developmental process. It risks never going through the storming stage, creating a false harmony in the team.’

3. Avoiding

For many, avoiding is the easiest and most instinctive response to conflict handling. While John acknowledges that avoidance can be beneficial for creating a pause to cool down and revisit the issue later, it’s not advisable to make it the default approach to addressing issues. Ultimately, neglecting to tackle the underlying problem allows it to persist and hinder overall the team’s potential.

4. Collaborating

Collaborating is both assertive and cooperative—the complete opposite of avoiding. ‘It emphasises finding mutually satisfactory solutions,’ says John. ‘Collaborating is forged through open communication, active listening, and a high willingness to explore different perspectives to reach consensus. Collaborating requires patience, because laying your own preferences down and seeking a mutual win – a third way – takes time and humility. Collaborating always involves sacrifice, because it’s no longer about what’s solely best for me or for you, but what is best for us.’

5. Compromising

The ‘compromising approach,’ as per Kilmann’s model, falls in the middle ground, exhibiting moderate levels of both assertiveness and cooperativeness, a balance of giving and taking. In compromising, you partially address the issue, but you don’t delve into it as deeply as you would when collaborating. Explains John, ‘Compromise is all about concessions, seeking a mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties—a half-win scenario. Compromising can have you feeling like both parties lose in the end. It’s okay for the short term but it’s not sustainable in the long run.’

‘Kilmann’s model has been helpful for me in team settings, providing language and a framework to understand different conflict resolution approaches,’ says John. ‘The best conflict handling style is situational, depending on the specific conflict, the people involved, and what the moment requires. Everyone is capable of using all five styles; none should use a single one exclusively. Even Jesus Himself leaned into all five styles of addressing conflict.’

‘It’s important to remember’, John concluded, ‘that conflict is not bad; it’s merely a symptom of a problem to be solved, rather than a battle to be won. You’re not fighting each other; you’re actually looking to find a way forward together. If well navigated, conflict can strengthen and enrich relationships, moving them from pseudo to high-performing teams that leave a lasting impact for generations to come.’

More on FiftyFour

FiftyFour is an online learning and capacity-building platform designed to guide leaders towards growing healthy organisations. The platform centres on four pillars: assessment tools, impactful courses, connection with other leaders, and data & research. These benefits provide leaders the opportunity to assess their needs, access applicable learning, learn from peers and understand data from their region that can inform their growth.

As part of the learning journey, leaders are invited to attend online workshops where they can learn, connect and engage with specialists over topics relevant to organisational health. This event, hosted in late 2023, marked FiftyFour’s inaugural workshop. All of these workshops are free and will be hosted on a monthly basis throughout 2024.

FiftyFour will be launched as a free resource, available to all non-profit leaders, in the coming months. If you’re interested in learning more about the platform and joining this journey, along with participating in events like this one, feel free to contact us here: https://fiftyfourcollective.com/pre-register/

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