Conflict Management Styles

Understanding the Five Styles for Handling Conflict

Scholars have come up with various constructs that point to different styles of behaviors by which conflict may be handled. The five generic styles of handling interpersonal conflict within organizational settings were first conceptualized in 1926 by Mary P. FolletOpens in new window (1940).

Follet also conceptualized three constructs—domination, compromise, and integration—as the main ways of handling organizational conflict, as well as two other constructs—avoidance and suppression—as the secondary ways of handling conflict.

Blake and Mouton (1964) first pioneered a conceptual scheme for classifying the modes (styles) for handling interpersonal conflictOpens in new window into five types:

They described the five modes of handling conflict on the basis of the attitudes of the manager: concern for production and for people.

Their scheme was reinterpreted by Thomas (1976). He considered the intentions of a party (cooperativeness, i.e., attempting to satisfy the other party’s concerns) in classifying the modes of handling conflict into five types.

Rahim and Bonoma (1979) and Rahim (1983a) differentiated the styles of handling interpersonal conflict on two basic dimensions: concern for self and concern for others.

  • The first dimension, concern for self, explains the degree (high or low) to which a person attempts to satisfy his or her own concern.
  • The second dimension, concern for others, explains the degree (high or low) to which a person wants to satisfy the concern of others.

These dimensions have been verified to portray the motivational orientations of a given individual during conflict. Studies by Ruble and Thomas (1976) and Van de Vliert and Kabanoff (1990) yielded general support for these dimensions.

Combination of the two dimensions results in five specific styles of handling interpersonal conflict described as follows.

1.   Integrating: high concern for self and others

The integrating style, also known as problem solving, indicates high concern for self and others. This style entails collaboration between the parties (i.e., openness, exchange of information, and examination of differences to reach a solution acceptable to both parties).

According to Follet, “the first rule… for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open” (Follet, 1926/1940, p.38).

Gray (1989) describes this as collaborating— “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible” (p. 5).

Prein (1976) suggested that this style has two distinctive elements: confrontation and problem solving.

  • Confrontation involves open communication, clearing up misunderstanding, and analyzing the underlying causes of conflict.
  • Confrontation is a prerequisite for problem solving, which involves identification of and solution to the real problem(s) to provide maximum satisfaction of concerns of both parties.

2.   Obliging: low concern for self and high concern for others

An obliging style is associated with attempting to play down the differences and emphasizing commonalities to satisfy the concern of the other party. There is an element of selfsacrifice in this style. It may take the form of selfless generosity, charity, or obedience to another person’s order.

An obliging person neglects his or her own concern to satisfy the concern of the other party. According to Boulding, such an individual is like a “conflict absorber,” i. e., a “person whose reaction to a perceived hostile act on the part of another has low hostility or even positive friendliness” (Boulding, 1962, p. 171).

3.   Dominating: high concern for self and low concern for others

Dominating style indicates high concern for self and low concern for others. It is an assertive and uncooperative method of dealing with conflict.

This style has been identified with a win-lose orientation or with forcing behavior to win one’s position. Here, the dominating person wants to win at any means necessary because he feels that one side must win and the other must lose. Thus, a dominating or competing person goes all out to win his or her objective and, as a result, often ignores the needs and expectations of the other party.

Dominating may mean standing up for one’s rights and/or defending a position that the party believes to be correct. This method usually helps a person achieve his or her goals, but its regular use by a manager develops fear, lack of respect, and hatred by those affected.

4.   Avoiding: low concern for self and others

Avoiding style indicates low concern for self and others. This is also known as suppression. People use this style to stay out of conflicts, ignore disagreements, or remain neutral. It is associated with withdrawal, buck-passing, sidestepping, or “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” situations.

Avoiding may take the form of postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation. An avoiding person fails to satisfy his or her own concern as well as the concern of the other party.

This style is often characterized as an unconcerned attitude toward the issues or parties involved in conflict. Such a person may refuse to acknowledge in public that there is a conflict which should be dealt with.

5.   Compromising: intermediate in concern for self and others

Compromising style reflects an intermediary cooperative and assertive method. It is based on give and take and typically involves a series of negotiations and concessions whereby both parties give up something to make a mutually acceptable decision.

In a compromising approach, negotiation is based on the concept of interdependence: both sides recognize that they mutually have needs and that they must work together after the conflict. This may entails splitting the difference, exchanging concession, or seeking a quick, middle-ground position.

A compromising party gives up more than a dominating party but less than an obliging party. Likewise, such a party addresses an issue more directly than an avoiding party but does not explore it in as much depth as an integrating party.

Additional insights may be gained by reclassifying the five styles of handling interpersonal conflict according to the terminologies of the game theory. Integrating style can be reclassified to positive-sum (win-win) style, compromising to mixed (no-win/no-lose) style, and obliging, dominating, and avoiding to zero-sum or negative-sum (lose-win, win-lose, and lose-lose, respectively) style.

Further insights into the five styles of handling interpersonal conflict may be obtained by organizing them according to the integrative and distributive dimensions of labor-management bargaining suggested by Walton and McKersie (1965). The integrative dimension (integrating-avoiding) represents the degree (high or low) of satisfaction of concerns received by self and others. The distributive dimension (dominating-obliging) represents the proportion of the satisfaction of concerns received by self and others.

In the integrative dimension, integrating attempts to increase the satisfaction of the concerns of both parties by finding unique solutions to the problems acceptable to them. Avoiding leads to the reduction of satisfaction of the concerns of both parties as a result of their failure to confront and solve their problems.

In the distributive dimension, whereas dominating attempts to obtain high satisfaction of concerns for self (and provide low satisfaction of concerns for others), obliging attempts to obtain low satisfaction of concerns for self (and provide high satisfaction of concerns for others). Compromising represents the point of intersection of the two dimensions, i.e., a middle-ground position where each party receives an intermediate level of satisfaction of their concerns from the resolution of their conflicts.

It is generally agreed that the above design for conceptualizing the styles of handling interpersonal conflict is a noteworthy improvement over the simple cooperative-competitive dichotomy suggested by earlier researchers.

The following texts highlight situations where each style is appropriate

  • Issues are complex.
  • Synthesis of ideas is needed to come up with better solutions.
  • Commitment is needed from other parties for successful implementation.
  • Time is available for problem-solving.
  • One party alone cannot solve the problem.
  • Resources possessed by different parties are needed to solve their common problems.
  • You believe that you may be wrong.
  • Issue is more impolirtant to the other party.
  • You are willing to give up something in exchange for something from the other party.
  • You are dealing from a position of weakness.
  • Preserving relationship is important.
  • Issue is trivial.
  • Speedy decision is needed.
  • Unpopular course of action is implemented.
  • Necessary to overcome assertive subordinates.
  • Unfavorably decision by the other party may be costly to you.
  • Subordinates lack expertise to make technical decisions.
  • Issue is important to you.
  • Issue is trivial.
  • Potential dysfunctional effect of confronting the other party outweighs benefits of resolution.
  • Cooling off period is needed.
  • Goals of parties are mutually exclusive.
  • Parties are equally powerful.
  • Consensus cannot be reached.
  • Integrating or dominating style is not successful.
  • Temporary solution to a complex problem is needed.

Generally, integrating and, to some extent compromising, styles are appropriate for dealing with strategic issues. The remaining styles can be used to deal with tactical or day to day problems. The above discussion on the styles of handling conflict and the situations where they are appropriate or inappropriate is a normative approach to managing conflict.