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How to Use the Conflict Management Canvas

The best way to resolve conflict is to have a clear method. Use this tool to design your team's approach.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 7, 2021

Resolve conflict by learning from past issues

Organizations have an unhealthy relationship with conflict. Most consider it to be something terrible which must be avoided. However, the more we avoid conflict, the worst it becomes, creating a debt that piles up with onerous consequences.

The Conflict Management Canvas is a tool to help teams address conflict by reflecting on past issues and identifying learnings to better prepare to solve current tensions. In this post, I will share the principles behind the tool and how to facilitate it with your team.

Since I developed this framework, we’ve been using it a lot – especially to help teams address the multiple challenges of a hybrid workplace. The results have been very positive. That’s why I want to make the Conflict Management Canvas available to team leaders, facilitators, and everyone who wants to eliminate conflict in an organization.

The Conflict Management Canvas – Quick Intro

Conflict avoidance is harmful for teams. However, the lack of a structure or shared approach makes it harder to address conflict, even if members want to. That’s what inspired me to design a framework that could facilitate productive conversations and unstick teams.

The Conflict Management Canvas encourages people to reflect on past issues in order to uncover approaches and lessons that they can apply to solve current tensions. Most importantly, it helps align team members while designing their own approach to conflict management.

First, members reflect on their own experiences and then everyone discusses their impressions, unpack the lessons, and define a shared approach.

The Conflict Management Canvas has four sections:

• Assess past conflicts

• Map how conflict was managed

• What didn’t work? What worked?

• Define top 5 actions

This activity can be done in-person using a hardcopy of the canvas or using virtual whiteboards such as MURAL, Miro, etc.). Divide the team into groups of 5-7 people to facilitate better conversations.

Start by introducing the importance of addressing tensions in the open. You can share this article about the danger of letting conflict debt piles up. Introduce the framework and then facilitate each section in the order as follows.

1. Assess Past Conflicts

The goal of this section is to review how issues were managed in the past, identifying those that were resolved better than others. People complete this section on their own and in silence. They will share and reflect on the learnings later.

To make it more exciting and avoid getting stuck in current issues, invite participants to consider conflict from previous jobs and organizations, not just their current ones.

Have participants write out all the conflicts they experienced – one per sticky note.

Once everyone’s finished, ask them to add the post-its to the Canvas, assigning each to the respective category based on how they were resolved: well, so-so, not solved.

Estimated time: 10-15 minutes.

2. Map Out Past Conflicts Using the Thomas-Kilmann Model

If you haven’t yet introduced the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), this is the time to do so. This model considers the different conflict responses we tend to use. It’s a great way to reflect on individual and group approaches to dealing with issues – both small and big.

The TKI includes five different conflict-management modes and helps identify which is used most often. It addresses two key dimensions:

- Assertiveness: The degree to which you care for your own agenda

- Cooperativeness: The degree to which you care for other people’s agendas

The combination of these two dimensions determines five conflict-management modes:

1. Competition: You try to satisfy your own concerns at the other person’s expense

2. Avoidance: You skip conflict without satisfying either individual’s concerns

3. Accommodation: You try to satisfy others’ concerns at the expense of your own

4. Compromise: Both parties meet in the middle, finding an acceptable solution that requires everyone to make sacrifices

5. Collaboration: You aim for a win-win solution that addresses both others’ agendas and your own

One team shared many illustrations about a previous job where all senior executives were competing against each other. For example, when working on a new website, everyone was pitching to the CEO why their specific functionality/ should be included. Rather than agreeing on what was best for the company, they were trying to use the limited budget for their own benefit.

There is no single best way to handle every conflict. Each of the five conflict-handling modes has pros and cons. The approach should consider the context. Although collaboration is usually the best response, sometimes giving your agenda away (compromise or accommodation) or avoiding conflict could be the right response for that situation.

As Dr. Barbara Benoliel, a professor at Walden University, explains, “Each strategy has its own benefits; there is no right or wrong conflict management style. Understanding how you instinctively respond to conflicts as well as having increased awareness of other management styles may help how you typically approach specific situations and lead to efficient and effective conflict resolution.”

Invite team members to select three examples – one for each of the categories (solved well, solved so-so, or not solved) and place them in the “How conflict was managed” matrix. Have them reflect individually before they discuss their insights with the rest of the team.

Ask each team member to share out loud one of their examples, where they placed it, and why. While one person presents, others should take notes of the conversation. Have colleagues ask questions to understand the situation and reflect on the experience.  

Ideally, have participants share a mix of both good and bad examples in terms of resolution, covering the different conflict management modes (Avoidance, Competition, Compromise, Collaboration, and Accommodation).

Ask participants to reflect on the different conflict resolution modes and see which worked better when and why.

Estimated time: 20-35 min

3. What Worked? What Didn’t Work?

Based on the previous conversation, ask participants to reflect on worst and best practices completing the “What worked? What didn’t worked?” section.

When working on this part, people should consider not just behaviors, but also emotions and mindsets.

Estimated time: 15-20 minutes

4. Define Top 5 Actions

Based on all the previous reflections, ask the team to come up with various actions that they want to adopt to better solve conflict in the future. Ask each group to share their suggested list.

Have the larger team select the top five actions and agree that everyone will abide by the new norms.

Estimated time: 15-25 minutes

Wrap up the session with a quick closing round.

Share all the materials: notes on the whiteboard, the different canvas, and the consolidated one. Most importantly, make sure that team members keep the top five actions handy every time conflict arises.

Conflict Management Modes – Additional Insights

Use the following thoughts on each conflict management mode to facilitate the conversation on step two.

Competition has a strong effect and is best when sparingly. While it may be necessary and useful in quite a few situations, it can strain work relationships and create resentment. In its escalated form it can be pretty destructive.

Use competition when a quick decision is necessary and waiting can be more harmful – or when there are important issues where collaboration fails. On some occasions, there’s not much room for negotiation like in budget cuts.

Competition should be used fairly.

Collaboration usually leads to more creative solutions that build on individual contributions and viewpoints. It encourages everyone to work toward meeting all concerns and interests.

Collaboration requires more time, energy, and creativity. Thus, it could sometimes slow down a team during a crisis. Collaboration is perfect when you need to uncover new ideas, when the team has strong interpersonal relationships, when dealing with complex issues, or when addressing personal tensions between team members.

Compromise often leads to a solution that’s good enough without too much effort. It provides not only speed and expediency, but also fairness, protecting everyone’s interests.

However, the idea of meeting everyone in the middle can leave all parties feeling unsatisfied. This could increase frustration and add more fuel to the fire. Trying to find a quick resolution could also lead to suboptimal solutions and superficial understanding of the real issues at hand.

Compromise isn't often the go-to conflict resolution mode. However, it can work for finding a temporary fix to a complex problem that requires time and many iterations to be resolved. Compromise can also help two team members with equal power who are stuck in a win-lose issue.

Avoidance is not the right conflict resolution mode if used by default. Although it helps alleviate stress, saves time, and steers the team away from danger, it can make things worse over time. Avoidance piles up conflict debt, increasing resentment, delays, and bad habits.

In general, it’s best not to avoid conflict. However, it can help to temporarily protect emotional relationships or giving people the time to control their anger or get into better shape to address conflict.

The pandemic forced many organizations to avoid certain tensions as people were already facing too many challenges at once. Some could be postponed and addressed later once people started to recover.  

Accommodation is effective when a team member is willing to sacrifice their interests to support someone else. It can also help to restore harmony, choose a quick ending, or protect personal relationships.

Of course, continually accommodating others’ agendas can decrease motivation, confidence, and make you lose respect in front of others.

The accommodation mode is most effective when you realize someone’s idea or solution is better than yours, or when making a small sacrifice on your part can do a much greater good for the team. One example is moving a meeting you scheduled so people can attend another event.

Accommodating is not always a healthy choice. Don’t give your needs away to people who are never willing to negotiate, consistently out of control, or verbally abusive. Also, before accommodating, make sure to clearly express your perspective/ interest, why you’re willing to give them away, and that it’s a one-time concession, not your conflict management pattern.

What do you think?

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