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Design and Conflict: Do You Know Your Conflict Style?

Ask most government employees their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and they can rattle off their results. But if you ask a government employee about their conflict style, it’s much less likely they can talk about their tendencies and predilections around tension.

Conflict is inevitable in the workplace, but is conflict something your product team proactively talks about?

Building empathy towards users is always a part of the UX process, but it’s not always common practice to build empathy towards our teammates. Here’s an idea to proactively address conflict and build empathy through understanding on your team.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a tool developed by two behavioral scientists who identified five styles of responding to conflict. While you could have everyone on your team take the assessment and discuss the results, just understanding your own tendencies could be the first step to better addressing conflict.

A close-up on a business man holding a small sign that reads, Conflict Management.

Ildo Frazao/iStock/Thinkstock

Here is a summary of the five styles, examples of how they can manifest on digital teams and approaches to take with each style from Dale Eilerman, a counselor from Ohio:

Competing:

  • Style: A competing style is an attempt to gain power. A recognizable tactic is using pressure to change opinions at another person’s expense.
    • Pros: A competing style can be effective during certain difficult situations, like in a crisis, when decisions need to be made immediately.
    • Cons: A competitive style can be perceived as aggressive, confrontational and uncooperative. However, the biggest drawback of a competing style is that it can cause harm to relationships – sometimes beyond repair.

You know you’re witnessing a competing style when you feel a lack of collaboration coupled with an increase in assertiveness. How does this play out on design teams? A competing style can often be used by management when difficult decisions, like budgets and reductions in force (RIFs), occur. This can be a healthy response to a stressful and critical decision. But competing styles can show up in unhealthy ways, too. Your team is impacted by a competing style when decisions are made by someone who uses their position or authority to override a design or technical decision, hurting relationships by not considering the majority opinion. A competing style can flare up as being unfairly critical or manipulating during a critique, trying to stronghold and advocate for one point of view with little concern for other options or the team behind the work. What is the best way to address a competing style when you see it?

  • Competitive styles respond best to using facts and data. They are focused on goals over relationships. Focus your conversation around objective points.
  • Focus on mutual benefits. Show the person with the competitive style how they can benefit from multiple outcomes, whether it’s who is staffed on a project or why a technical decision is being pursued.
  • Put things in writing. Whether it’s a design brief or justification for a decision, it can be helpful for those with a competitive style to see different options spelled out in plain language.

Accommodating:

  • Style: An accommodating style is the opposite of a competing style. An accommodating style puts relationships first, but often to a fault. A person sets their own needs aside to keep the peace.
    • Pros: Accommodation can be useful to preserve relationships, especially if you want to minimize loss and prioritize people.
    • Cons: If your teammate relies on the accommodating style too often, he or she can take on the role of a martyr, but this can result in feelings of resentment and regret. This tactic can result in increased power imbalances.

The accommodating style shows up on design teams during critique, when no one wants to give critical feedback, thinking feelings might be hurt. When your teammate takes on more work than he can possibly handle and then resents having to work over time during the weekend, but fumes silently, he is taking on an accommodating style. It’s when keeping the peace and being considered nice is preferred over any other option. When you see an accommodating style on your team, consider the following ideas for dealing with it:

  • If a conflict is between two team members, considering having the person using the accommodating style to discuss the situation with someone else on the team. Having a sounding board to talk with about feelings, ideas and opinions can help an accommodating style think through how they would ideally like to respond to the situation.
  • Accommodating styles are often exaggerated between a manager and an employee. If you are a manager, when you are making a decision with an employee who tends to use the accommodating style, ensure that you are presenting possibilities and options to choose from when possible. This helps an accommodating approach get used to voicing their opinion about viable options in low-risk situations.

Avoiding:

  • Style: An avoidant style tends to ignore or withdraw from a conflict – anything is preferred to acknowledging the issues.
    • Pros: Avoidance can be appropriate when you need more time to think about the conflict and how to best approach it.
    • Cons: When the avoidance style is used by a teammate, it can lead others to believe that might lack concern about the issues creating conflict.

Avoidant behavior can be useful on a team when product decisions are trivial – if you don’t care about the font size, it’s fine to focus your effort on other outcomes. However, when someone on your team is an expert, whether it’s in Linux programming or interaction design, and they avoid weighing in or committing to decisions, it might be time to address the avoidant behavior. Here are some suggestions for working with someone who tends to have an avoidant style:

  • Consider role playing with an avoidant style. This can be used if you need to help prepare for a meeting where you think there will be pushback on your team’s decisions. Getting comfortable with conflict is difficult. Practice can help.
  • Create alternative ways to give feedback. Change up how your team deals with conflict and try approaches that might work for different styles. Allow feedback to be anonymous. Does your team have an anonymous suggestion box?
A win-win cycle written on a chalk board.

airdone/iStock/Thinkstock

Compromising:

  • Style: The compromising style shows your teammate is willing to meet in the middle.  He or she will sacrifice some of their own interests, and expect you to do the same, in order to meet in the middle.
    • Pros: Compromise is typically seen as a good thing. Compromising shows concern for others. It’s also an approach that can get to a resolution more quickly than other styles.
    • Cons: Compromising can limit the number of possible creative solutions. By always trying to be fair and equitable, you might unintentionally be compromising the end result.

The phrase design by committee come to mind for thinking about how the compromising style can go wrong. The work is not your best, no one is totally satisfied, and a little resentment starts to creep in. Compromise isn’t a bad tactic, but it’s important to recognize that consistent compromisers might not be willing to look at other sides of conflict. Here’s how to work with a compromising style to make sure that design by committee isn’t happening:

  • Look for win/win outcomes. Compromisers tend to settle. It’s possible to seek out solutions that benefit everyone involved. Ensure that possibility is a part of the conversation.
  • When a compromise is reached, help a compromising style reflect on whether or not each person on your team has given up something of equal importance. Ensuring a sense of fairness while decision making can increase cooperation and engagement during tense moments in the long term.

Collaborating:

  • Style: The collaborative style sees conflicts as problems to be solved in creative ways. A collaborating style aims for resolutions to address everyone’s concerns.
    • Pros: This style helps build trust, respect and relationships – all key for a healthy team.
    • Cons: Collaboration is time consuming. For conflicts that do not directly involve team members, collaboration may require too much effort.

The collaborating style is likely your team at its best during conflict. It’s when a team is learning, listening intently, sharing and understanding different perspectives and openly discussing the issue that is causing tension. This style can improve your team’s relationship to one another. The flip side of the collaborating style is that can take a long time and a lot of energy. Every conflict doesn’t require this approach. Here’s how to help the collaborating style improve:

  • Active listening is a key component of an effective approach to the collaborating style. Has the collaborator on your team practiced active listening? Is active listening a norm on your team?
  • Does your federal workplace offer training in creative problem solving or conflict management? Someone who tends to lean on a collaborating style might want further training to improve their inherent approach.

It’s important to remember that no one has a single style for dealing with conflict. It’s possible to use each of the styles or to rely on just a couple out of habit or personality. Keep in mind that the Thomas-Kilmann styles of conflict is just one theory. There are other academic approaches to conflict that you could use to proactively address conflict. Related topics, like dealing with stress or active listening, are also places to start addressing your team’s attitude towards conflict.

Have you found other tools or ideas to talk about conflict on teams useful? Let us know in the comments.

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