Audit Advantage: Managing Conflict

Managing ConflictConflict, definition, Oxford Dictionaries:

Noun - 'a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one'.

Verb - 'be incompatible or at variance; clash'.

I last wrote about conflict for several years ago; that was a fairly comprehensive article, describing the different types of conflict with a selection of suggestions for resolution.  Five years on, and the prospect of encountering conflict at home, or at work, is equally likely and the resolution techniques are as vital today as ever. But what I didn't talk about then was the chronic nature of conflict.  Take a look at the dictionary definitions above.  Conflict is conveyed as almost all-out war; big, major, all encompassing clashes or collisions, by nature extraordinary, atypical and uncommon.  But unfortunately, in real life, conflict isn't exceptional; it seems to me that we encounter it, in some shape or form, daily, and to a lesser or greater degree, its woven into the fabric of our living and working lives.  Look a little further down the list of dictionary sub-definitions and you find a more pragmatic reflection of conflict: 'a state of mind in which a person experiences a clash of opposing feelings or need'. Now are you getting conflicts' more insidious nature?


'Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional', Max Lucade

So low level conflict is everywhere; at work, at home, with our loved ones, in our economic, socio, political environs.  Avoidance is possible, temporarily, but it's not a sustainable strategy.  Instead we need to find ways of managing chronic conflict, just as we do with life's other stimulants and irritants.

Let's take a look more deeply at the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Profile, which we first introduced in The Auditor’s Guide to Conflict Resolution.

Back in the 1970s Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann realised that individuals have a naturally preferred conflict resolution approach which can be described by the following categorisation:

  • Competing (forcing)

  • Collaborating (problem solving)

  • Compromising

  • Avoiding (withdrawing)

  • Accommodating (soothing)

As strategies, none of these are universally right or wrong, each has pros and cons and each one has its uses in certain situations. We are all capable of employing all five modes but we will be drawn to one or more particular styles which we will then repeatedly employ and unconsciously adopt as a default.  Do you recognise your own behavioural style among these?  If you are unsure, you can complete the full Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Profile diagnostic by emailing me.


The right tool for the job

Can competing or forcing ever be the right approach to handling conflict, I hear you ask?  Well yes, in an emergency situation, when there are no viable alternatives and you know you are right, a rapid decisive approach could be critical.  But generally there are, of course, more constructive, sustainable methods of managing conflict:

  • Collaborating is looking for a win-win solution, confronting and solving a problem that is too important for compromise.  It is best used on weightier issues (trivial conflict won't merit the investment of time and resources required) or matters of a more strategic nature which require a long term resolution.  For the auditor, this might be working out a modus operandi with stakeholders of different departments or service lines, to plot a mutually beneficial way forward that meets the needs of all parties.

  • Compromising looks to expediency when issues are important but there is insufficient time or depth of relationship for full collaboration. It also has its place when goals are mutually exclusive.  In audit we often work out compromises with our clients as regards our findings and resultant corrections but it can also be useful for a fast way out of an impasse with friends, family or individual colleagues.

  • Avoiding isn't necessarily as negative as it sounds; sometimes it is worth withdrawing from a battle to win a war. It can also depend on the relative materiality of the issue and you might perform a brisk risk assessment, weighing up the value of potential benefits against the cost of possible losses.  One to one clashes at home and at work often call for avoidance.  Sometimes this might be total withdrawal, when the battle just isn't worth winning or it could be a considered a timely retraction until the time is right.

  • Accommodating or soothing is called for when you realise that you are in the wrong and it can demonstrate great strength of character and engender trust to know when to adopt this stance.  On the risk side, over use of accommodating could be perceived as unassertiveness and deprive you of influence, but it has its place and can be useful to buy you time and/or goodwill.

As you can see, all of these styles have a place in resolving conflict and, just like other aspects of Emotional Intelligence, the trick is to develop the ability to adapt your response appropriately to the particular circumstances.

Conflict might be chronic, but it isn't necessarily bad.  We can learn and grow from experiencing, managing and even losing out in conflict situations.  I leave you with food for thought from the pen of Kenneth Kaye, American psychologist, writer, and business consultant: 'if necessity is the mother of invention, conflict is its father'.


Which topic would you like to read about next month? Look over the list of topics in the original Audit Advantage article here and let us know your choice for the next topic we should cover.


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