How to Manage Conflict for Better Performing Teams

by Joseph Sommerville, Ph.D.


We usually think about conflict as something to avoid at all costs. It’s true that conflict can cause stress, damage interpersonal relationships and serve as a barrier to productivity within a group. But conflict also has some positive consequences. For example, it can help to test faulty assumptions. If we overemphasize the importance of everyone “getting along,” we’re in danger of stifling any dissent and creating only an illusion of unanimity. In fact, the complete absence of conflict should concern us more.

We have to realize is that conflict is a normal function of human interaction. If your goal is to avoid conflict, you might as well try to avoid using nouns and verbs in sentences. Anytime people interact with one another, they’re eventually going to have interests that don’t coincide. When that happens, conflict emerges.

Avoidance is a strategy, but only one of many. Here are five different strategies for managing stress. Once you realize conflict is unavoidable, and that you have tools to manage it, you’ll be better prepared when it does surface.

Picture two axes forming a plot. The vertical axis represents your desire to meet your own needs, from low to high. The horizontal axis represents your desire to meet the needs of others. Depending on how much you emphasize each of those axes, different strategies will emerge.

Let’s start with the strategy of avoidance, since that’s the most common way of dealing with conflict. It’s an appropriate strategy when the issue isn’t very important to you or the other person. We often practice avoidance because we believe bringing the issue up will only cause more stress and tension in the relationship. There are times when that’s true and it’s just not worth it to pursue the matter. Unfortunately, this strategy is overused. We rely on it even when issues are important and when not discussing them may lead to poor decisions. Let’s look at other strategies that may be more appropriate and more productive in different situations.

When you have a high desire to meet your own needs and low desire to meet the needs of others, competition is the strategy that emerges for managing conflict. You see the situation as a zero-sum game. That is, each resource the other person receives means less for you. This is often the case when you’re dealing with limited budgets or limited staffing. Securing those limited resources becomes a high priority for you, so winning becomes all important. Unfortunately, very assertive individuals sometimes default to this strategy even when there aren’t limited resources because they’ve been successful with it in the past.

When the issue isn’t very important to you, but a pretty big deal to the other person, you may practice accommodation or adaptation. In other words, you let the person have what he wants. We often underestimate the significance someone attaches to a request. Accommodation is a way to recognize that person’s needs at little cost to your own. Accommodation is not an appropriate strategy when the conflict arises because of unprofessional behavior or poor interpersonal skills. Accommodating in these situations only reinforces the undesirable behavior and delays necessary change.

If the issue is a high priority for you and the other person, compromise or concession may be the most appropriate strategy. When conceding, each party recognizes they can’t have 100% of what they’re asking for, and agrees to give up something in exchange for something they value more. It involves self-sacrifice. Although we often think of compromise as the best way to resolve conflict, it automatically assumes that something has to be given up and that we leave less than fully satisfied.

That brings me to the fifth strategy, cooperation. Cooperation is the effort to find a win-win solution, one that benefits both parties in the conflict. It is a strategy that seeks your own maximum gain while recognizing the needs of the other and searching for solutions that satisfy both. As the name implies, this strategy depends on actively engaging the other party to find a common solution.

Which of these strategies is the best for dealing with conflict? It depends. In the case of very limited resources, competition may be your only choice. If you can grant someone’s request at very little cost to you, accommodation may be the most appropriate strategy. My goal isn’t to give you one blunt instrument to deal with conflict. It’s to give you a toolbox full of strategies; one that gives you choices and adaptability.

Please remember that conflict is inevitable and that it can serve a positive function. With these facts in mind, you’ll realize that you’re much better off managing conflict than trying to avoid it every time.

Comments are closed.


32111 Damon
Magnolia, TX 77354

Blog Archive