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Conflict Management

As unpleasant as it seems, conflict can be one of a lab manager's best ways of discovering where problems exist among his or her staff and where values, goals, roles, statuses and perceptions are causing problems that need to be dealt with.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Uncover the Sources, Summon Your Courage and Confront the Problem

Conflicts happen! They are all around us, and the fact that you manage a bright and well-educated staff makes managing conflict more difficult in some ways. Why don’t they see it my way? Why can’t they just work it out? They just need more data. Or, in the words of Reginald Denny, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The only reasons for the legal profession, it seems to me, are avoiding, managing and resolving conflict. As a manager, it is vital to understand why conflict exists and to have the tools available to confront and resolve conflict.

Personal Application Exercise I – Think about an issue—current or recent—involving conflict in your work group. Describe the facts as you know them in some detail: who is involved, what the major issues are, how long this has been going on, etc.

The sources of conflict
The first step in managing conflict is to understand the sources of conflict in organizations in order to discover the cause of your conflict

Value differences
While we share the vast majority of personal and cultural values, minor differences in values and the importance of different values can lead to conflict. For example, if I hold fairness as one of my most important values and you hold freedom as more important, conflict may emerge when your desire for loose workplace rules leads to the perception of unequal assignment of responsibilities. The values that tend to be problematic in the lab are not high-order values such as quality and accuracy but rather “lower level” values that are more akin to preferences, such as acknowledgment and composure.1

Role pressures
Our various roles at work, the hats we wear, may be quite clear (however, usually they are not), but the pressures from outside the workplace can be a serious source of conflict. The demands of a multigenerational family can be daunting, and fitting it all together leads to tension and fatigue and is the source of much of the conflict that arises. Staying late to finish an important project or proposal can be in direct conflict with attending a soccer game or a dance recital or with getting an aging parent to an appointment with a physician. Role pressures also come from poorly trained and poorly prepared staff and from an environment that is not open to discussion and dissent.

“Okay, boss, what is more important to you, accuracy or meeting a deadline?” “Both!” While the overall goals for your lab may be clear to everyone, individual, divisional or departmental goals can be widely divergent. There are always tensions between cost and quality, accuracy and timeliness, and relationships and efficiency associated with specific goals that can bring staff into conflict.

Perception differences
What do you see in this image? A human skull or a woman at her dressing table? All of us see things from the reference of our experience, our emotions and our values. Our mood impacts our reaction to a situation, and that is particularly true when we are angry or excited or our ego is involved. Assume that people will have a different reaction to a situation based on their perception. The ’70s mantra “the perception is the reality” is true. (

Status conflict
Our status in society is very important, and people who are not aware of different status symbols can get into trouble quickly. The differences between a technician and a technologist may not be important to outsiders, but in some laboratory settings they can be crucial distinctions. Status comes from several sources and is closely tied to the values of the organization. Any threats to our status are seen as attacks on the values we have accepted. This is particularly true when a large percentage of the staff is at the same level on the organization chart or receives substantially the same salary.

A couple of years ago I was on a tour in Turkey. One of my companions was the director of a large university lab. He had numerous telephone conversations with his staff during the tour, dealing with the names to be included in an article that was being finalized for publication. This was a clear attempt to reduce status conflict.

Personal Application Exercise II – Think about the conflict you identified in the first step in the Personal Application Exercise. Can you identify the possible sources that are coming into play? What about your own position?

Resolving conflict
The first step in resolving conflict is to gain an understanding of the sources of the conflict. The second is to have the courage to confront the conflict. Courage comes from commitment and the knowledge that you possess the requisite skills.

In the following model, from the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, “assertiveness is defined as the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy his or her own concerns, and cooperativeness is the extent to which the individual attempts to satisfy the other person’s concerns.”

So, someone who is being Assertive and Cooperative would be using a Collaborating mode. As you read the following descriptions, you probably will find one or two modes that you use most frequently. That’s normal; skillful conflict managers have developed a wide repertoire of responses and select the approach that best fits the situation.

This combination of Assertive and Uncooperative is appropriate when quick decisions and actions are imperative. You may not face many such situations except in emergencies. This is also an approach that may be appropriate when implementing unpopular but necessary changes in organizational procedures or in processes such as downsizing. Another use is when you are certain you are right but do not have the time to present a detailed explanation of your reasons and the background information.

When you combine Assertiveness with Cooperation, you have the basis for a mode that, given enough time and a sufficiently important issue, may be the most valuable approach to solving conflict. This is the method to use when the issues, are too important for Compromise. You will learn about the interests of the others involved. This is the mode that will help you work through hard feelings that have been interfering with interpersonal relationships. Perhaps most important about this approach is that it will lead to strong commitment to the decisions that emerge. However, be cautious about moving into a Collaborative mode when other techniques are better suited to the realities of the situation.

Being midway between Cooperative and Uncooperative and midway between Assertive and Unassertive leads to a Compromising approach to conflict management. It works best when goals are important but not overwhelmingly so. Compromise may be necessary when the people involved have equal power and are strongly committed to mutually exclusive goals. Compromise is also a good technique when you need a short-term solution to a complex problem or when you need to reach a quick solution on a deadline. This is also useful when other modes have failed. However, remember that in Compromise, no one is fully satisfied, so it should not be used in the case of vital issues with ethical implications.

When you take a stance that is both Unassertive and Uncooperative, you are Avoiding, and this mode does have legitimate uses. For example, it can be helpful when an issue is insignificant or of transient interest, or when spending time to resolve the conflict would interfere with more important issues. Avoiding is also a reasonable mode when there seems to be little chance of satisfying your concerns and when the potential damage from confronting a conflict outweighs the benefits from resolving it. This is a valuable approach when people need to cool down and return to a rational emotional state. Avoiding makes sense when you need to gather additional information and when others are better positioned to resolve the issues than you are.

Being Unassertive and Accommodating is the best combination when the issue is much more important to the other person than it is to you or when you need to build up “points” to use later for more important issues. This mode is best if your long-term goals are to foster harmony and to avoid disruption when you realize that you are wrong. This is a great technique to employ when your primary interest is the development of your staff.*

Each mode has advantages and disadvantages; a right time and place even for Avoiding and Compromise is not always the best approach! These are covered well in the information that accompanies the Instrument.2

Personal Application Exercise III – Review the conflict and your assessment of the underlying causes. Which conflict-handling mode seems to have the best fit and seems most likely to be successful?

Conflict resolution model
After uncovering the sources of conflict and considering the options available to get on with solving the problem, all you need is courage! There are two ways to build up your courage (forget about the kind that comes in a bottle). The first is to have successful experiences, and the second is to have a plan or a model to use. Here is a simple model to help you get beyond the fear that often comes with getting involved in a conflict.

Personal Application Exercise IV – Use the model above and add your judgment about the causes and the best technique to use. Then just do it!

We have no conflict here
What bliss! Wrong—having no conflict means one of the following things: People are fearful about raising their concerns; they are convinced that management is impotent; or they are not being pushed enough. In fact, conflict can be one of a manager’s best temperature sensors, one of the best ways to discover where problems exist, and where values, goals, roles, statuses and perceptions are causing problems that need to be dealt with. Conflict is good! That’s what some of my colleagues pronounce, but it’s not good for me (and I think they are trying to drum up business!). The idea of conflict causes my stomach to twist into knots and my hands to sweat. I know that my favorite conflict-handling mode is Avoiding, so I try to convince myself that this conflict is ideally suited to Avoidance.



Dana, D. Conflict Resolution, McGraw-Hill, 2001; ISBN: 0071364315

Fisher, R. and Ury, W. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Penguin Group, 1981; ISBN: 9780140157352

Heen, S., Patton, B., and Stone, D. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Viking, 1999; ISBN: 014028852X

Kilmann, R. H., and Thomas, K. W. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, Xicom, 1974; ISBN: 9993693235

*Modified and reproduced by special permission of the Publisher, CPP, Inc., Mountain View, CA 94043, from Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument by Kenneth W. Thomas, Ralph H. Kilmann. All rights reserved. Further reproduction is prohibited without the Publisher’s written consent.

Modified and reproduced by special permission of the Publisher, CPP, Inc., Mountain View, CA 94043, from Introduction to Conflict Management by Kenneth W. Thomas. Copyright 2002 by CPP, Inc. All rights reserved. Further reproduction is prohibited without the Publisher’s written consent.

    • Make sure that the issues are clear.
    • Use active listening, restatement and paraphrasing.
    • Understand the underlying causes of the differences: • Values • Roles • Goals • Perception • Status
    • Select the best Conflict-Handling Mode: •Competing • Collaborating • Accommodating • Compromising • Avoiding
    • Schedule a meeting.
    • Consider having a third or fourth party involved.
    • Get agreement.
    • Follow up.
    1. Steve Pavlina lists 374 values that people hold, and he provides an interesting way to assess your most important values. Visit his Web site at For more information, read the entry on values in Wikipedia.
    2. For more information on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and to order a copy of the Instrument with a detailed explanatory booklet, see index.aspx.