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  • Writer's pictureTerry Dockery


Mary is John’s employer, and she has grown weary of his poor performance. He’s been warned and coached repeatedly to no avail. Mary thinks that maybe it’s time to let John go, but she knows that his three young children are dependent on his income and that John’s family might go through some hard times if he were unemployed. She feels torn; what should she do?

After having tried feedback and coaching (and with proper legal documentation) Mary should terminate John because he’s getting a great deal while she and her organization are getting a lousy one. In other words, Mary currently is in a Lose- Win situation.

Relationships with others are an ongoing negotiation to get what you need and want from them. Unless you are a hermit, you’re going to share your world with other people, and we all know that if you get more than one person in a room they aren’t going to agree on everything. Failure to resolve these inevitable conflicts among team members constructively is one of the primary causes of substandard performance in organizations.

My favored model for teaching conflict management is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (1974, see figure below), with which I have taken a few artistic liberties. Notice that there are two basic dimensions in the model: 1) Concern for Self (low to high concern for self, or assertiveness), and 2) Concern for Others (low to high concern for other people).



Compete/Force Collaborate

(Win-Lose) (Win-Win)


Concern for self Compromise

Avoid Accommodate

(Lose-lose) (Lose-Win)


Low Concern for others High

The model assumes that we all use all the different conflict management styles to some degree, but that we tend to favor one of the styles as our primary approach. The most desirable conflict management style is the Collaborate (Win-Win) style. Here both parties get what is important to them, and they have a sound foundation for a continued constructive relationship if they desire it (Mary could have achieved this outcome only if John had responded positively to the feedback and coaching he received and had improved his performance).

Lo and behold, if you ask someone what their primary style is, almost inevitably they will tell you that it is Collaborate. If this were really true, then we would have stopped having wars a long time ago. If you want to know your true primary style, then ask those around you who will be honest with you.

The least desirable style is the Avoid (Lose-Lose) style. Here nobody gets what they want because you refuse to acknowledge that any conflict exists (Mary could ignore the problem altogether). The Compete/Force (Win-Lose) style leaves the other person feeling run over and often looking for revenge (Mary could have fired John without any feedback or coaching the first time he had ever made a mistake). The Accommodate (Lose-Win) style leaves you feeling run over and often feeling sorry for yourself (Mary could take responsibility for John’s failures and his family’s livelihood, keep him on, and continue to endure the stress and frustration of his poor performance).

Notice that in this model Compromise is in the center of the figure and is not considered the most desirable option. Here it is looked upon as neither person really getting what is important to them. This usually occurs when people stop short before fully exploring their conflict and negotiating a true Win-Win solution. Given this definition of compromise, most often people are better served calling No Deal and walking away from a relationship than settling for a compromise solution (this is what Mary should do in her situation— then she can hire someone else with whom she can create an ongoing Win-Win relationship).

What kind of relationships have you negotiated for yourself?


Technique #1: Be assertive. It’s okay to put you and your family first.

Technique #2: Give to get. Caring about others is fun in itself, but it also results in returned caring from those whose support you would like.

Technique #3: Compromise as a last resort. It’s usually better to: a) talk a little longer and go for the Win-Win, or b) call No Deal and walk away.

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