Teamwork and collaboration allow businesses to unlock innovations that wouldn’t be possible if employees were siloed in their own projects. But with teamwork, inevitably comes conflict as each employee offers their unique perspectives, skills, and goals to a project. 

Though you can’t avoid conflict, it will lower employee morale and productivity as team communication breaks down if not managed properly. For leaders and employees alike, studying and implementing one or more of the five most conflict management styles will help find resolutions that benefit all involved parties. 

Preview of conflict management styles

In most cases, conflict doesn’t come from a single source (or person) within a company. There are many sources of workplace conflict, including:

These aren’t the only sources for conflict — it’s as complex a topic as humans themselves. But there are ways we’ve learned to adapt to conflict.

5 conflict management styles to resolve disagreements

Accepting that conflict is an inevitable part of work allows teams to use conflict for growth opportunities. Understanding the five predominant conflict management styles, as defined in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, can help leaders assess and refine their approach to minimizing the effect of conflict on team members.

1. Compromising: This approach gives each person some, but not all, of what they want. It’s commonly referred to as a “lose-lose” approach because neither party achieves the entirety of their personal goals. A compromise might ease tension among team members because each person’s desires are partially fulfilled. However, it often doesn’t offer the most effective solution for meeting company goals. This style can be appropriate when each party’s goals are similar in importance.

2. Competing: Essentially, the competing style of conflict management involves fulfilling the needs of one party to the exclusion of others. You pick a side or solution and don’t budge. This approach requires assertive managers comfortable being with unhappy participants. It’s most appropriate for situations in which rapid, decisive action is needed to keep a project on track. Be careful with this one, as using a competing conflict management style may harm morale.

3. Accommodating: This is the opposite of the competing style mentioned above. The accommodating style fulfills the needs of others at the expense of your own needs and goals. This approach can help preserve relationships with particularly demanding employees and is often used to facilitate future team cooperation.

4. Avoiding: This is the “kick the can down the road” strategy. Employing this means that you’re avoiding the conflict without supporting your own needs or those of your employees. Avoidance is typically not an effective strategy except in cases involving trivial disputes that are not likely to compromise company goals.

5. Collaborating: The collaboration style involves working with involved parties to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. This “win-win” approach can improve morale and reduce tension by emphasizing the value of each employee’s viewpoint. Collaboration can take considerable time and effort to reach effective solutions, but it’s known to foster innovation and produce the best long-term results. 

There’s no one way to approach conflict. You might find yourself stepping into a different conflict management style for each conflict you come across. If you find yourself defaulting to the same conflict management style though, take some time to explore and practice alternative approaches. You might find the styles you avoid provide better resolutions in the long run. 

As the workplace sees new challenges from competitors and global events, continuously sharpening conflict management skills will be an important leadership competence. Learn more ways to lead through conflict and disruption in the Leader’s Guide to Navigating Change in a Remote Workplace.