Leadership and Management

Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

Back in January, our company shifted to a matrix organization structure. The year before, we were set up in a traditional hierarchy with about twenty associates reporting to a supervisor who reported to a manager. Under the new structure, the supervisors formed cross functional teams and collectively started to manage a group of sixty direct reports. Each supervisor had a specialty; either training, operations, or sales, and they were paid based on the success of the team. I lead one of these teams.

For us, I first noticed conflict in the form of intense argument and debate during our staff meetings. Team members kept interrupting each other with what they thought was the right idea. They weren’t listening and it sounded like they thought the loudest speaker would win the argument. They also used words like “always,” “never,” and “absolutely,” clear exaggerations. These arguments between managers quickly started to grow into resentments. During a one-on-one meeting a manager complained to me about not liking or wanting to work with another team member. I needed figure out this new structure quickly, or our results would suffer.

As the leader of this team I tried to forcefully take over the staff meetings. I didn’t want the bickering to get out of control, so I would listen for a bit and then announced my decision. “That’s final. Let’s move on,” I’d say, hearing the volume of my voice escalate. This moved our meetings along, but it took forever for our team to begin to work together cohesively. I’m proud of how far we’ve come, but I wish I handled those initial sessions differently.

The Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument explains what happened to my team perfectly. Kilman says there are five methods or modes individuals have for behaving during conflict. These methods can be drawn on a two-axis graph (see below). On the Y-axis is assertiveness, or how much the individual tries to get his or her way. On the X-axis is cooperativeness, or how much the individual tries to satisfy others’ concerns.

After taking the test I found my primary conflict mode is Competing. Here’s how Thomas and Kilmann describe this mode.

Competing is assertive and uncooperative, a power-oriented mode. When competing, an individual pursues his or her own interests at the other person’s expense, using whatever power seems appropriate to win his or her position. Competing might mean standing up for your rights, defending a position you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Additionally, almost all the members of my team at work use Competing as their primary conflict mode. According to Kilman, strong Competing teams can be highly effective teams after overcoming weaknesses including jumping to solutions, using unfair debating tactics, lengthy debates and deadlocks, resentments and hostilities. These teams tend to ignore relationships and focus only the tasks.

Luckily, Kilman gives leaders guidance and remedies for mitigating the weakness of each conflict style and maximizing the team’s productivity. Leaders of highly Competing teams need to referee the intense debates and may need to be forceful in decision-making. But before making a decision, the leaders must encourage opposing viewpoints, open communication channels and commit to taking time to think through the issues and underlying concerns before making a decision. These teams need to slow down decision-making and brainstorm various solutions before jumping to a conclusion.

Further, Competing teams need to set rules and norms for decision-making and debating. I wish I did this. Our team would benefit from fairness rules, like having equal time to talk without interrupting and keeping comments focused on the issues at hand. Disagreements and debates are fine as long as we can commit to mutual respect.

If I could go back to January I would talk about the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument with my team and set some ground rules. We would have saved the organization money by avoiding wasted time spent on resolutions. Better late than never. I’m getting to work on this at my next staff meeting.

3 replies »

  1. Have you noticed any appreciable decrease in creativity and innovation using this system? I wonder what effect a group-think culture and the need to compromise in favor of team-building and camaraderie has on creativity and independent thinking, is this something you’ve noticed?

    • Not yet. I hear what you’re saying. There are “good fights” that lead to better ideas and results. The purpose of TKI is not to eliminate conflict, but to understand when and how to use the different styles effectively. For example, an Avoider might have a hard time getting heard at my staff meetings while Competitors go point for point in a loud fast debate. By learning about his or her conflict style, the Avoider could learn how to force themselves to speak up. Also, the Competitors could learn to let the Avoider express an opinion without interrupting by following some preset ground rules for statesmanship. I hope this increased understanding leads to more creativity, not less.

  2. John,

    Very interesting situation. I would encourage you to follow your instincts re: setting ground rules. It’s a cliche, but I really do believe “it’s never too late” to do so. A slightly different way you might think about “ground rules” is to discuss “common values.” That is, “what values do we share in common re: how and why we do what we do?” If the team finds some shared values, this may help in establishing ground rules that everyone can live with, to the purpose of working better together.

    One other thought …

    … I generally come at things very much from an organizational design perspective, so I’m fascinated by your company’s use of a matrix structure, which is innovative but requires excellent communication for the matrix to work well. Thus, your focus on communication needs (ground rules) is right on the mark.

    … Beyond this, though, one aspect that is often overlooked when implementing new structures is … compensation. When the matrix was put into effect, did the rewards system change — or should it have changed? If the hierarchical system encouraged some behaviors (such as individualism) that were rewarded and compensated well, and if the new structure requires different behaviors (such as teamwork), the comp structure needs to have changed (i.e., incenting people toward effective teamwork) or your rewards system and performance expectations will be at odds. Just food for thought.

    Thanks for sharing,

    Michael Brisciana

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