Resolving Conflicts on Software Teams

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It’s one thing to know that conflict is inevitable in any team effort. It’s quite another thing to deal with it—especially if it threatens to escalate from a routine, everyday difference in viewpoints to a productivity-damaging, morale-plunging experience. It’s no wonder that Jim Ditmore, writing in Information Week, views conflict-resolution skills as critical for mid-level staffers whose goal is to become a CTO or CIO.

In the 1970s, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann observed that people typically have a preferred style of conflict resolution. They developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to enable people to identify their own preferred styles and the preferred styles of others when conflict arises. The five styles, in brief, are:

      • Competitive: Competitors know what they want and operate from a position of power. They tend to take a firm stand on the issue at hand.
      • Collaborative: Collaborators try to be all-inclusive, acknowledging the contribution each person is making and trying to meet the needs of everyone involved.
      • Compromising: Compromisers seek solutions that will partially satisfy everyone, with everyone giving up something in the interest of the group’s achieving a resolution.
      • Accommodating: Accommodators are highly cooperative, even to the point of giving in—and sometimes sacrificing—to meet the needs of others.
      • Avoiding: Avoiders seek to evade conflict situations altogether.

Although some of these styles seem more conducive to resolving conflict than others, each style is appropriate in certain situations and unhelpful in others. By becoming aware of these styles and your own preferred style, you can consider how you might resolve a given conflict in a way that respects the views and interests of all concerned.

Fortunately, most people don’t set out to provoke conflict. Payson Hall advises that in a conflict situation we should start by assuming people are doing the best they can with the information they have.

Therefore, give the people involved on each side of an issue a chance to explain their perspectives. This will help tease out important differences in personal history, assumptions, and definitions. Asking people to explain why they believe as they do, while potentially risky, can generate insight into their point of view—provided you truly listen and seek to understand.

Hall suggests that you try not to turn issues into win-lose situations; it’s best not to frame decisions as one side winning and the other side losing. This is not always easy to do in the heat of the moment, but if you start, as Hall advises, by assuming people are doing the best they can, you may avoid the heat—and associated conflict—altogether.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.