Do you know your conflict management style? According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Management Style Theory, individuals fall into 5 basic categories. Most people will present behaviours from multiple categories, with one or two being predominant. These categories sit on an axis of compassion, against an axis of assertiveness.
The spectrum is divided into five categories, depending whether you’re high or low on the axes: accommodating (high compassion, low assertiveness), avoiding (low compassion, low assertiveness), competing (low compassion, high assertiveness), collaborating (high compassion, high assertiveness) and compromising (medium compassion, medium assertiveness).
So, for example, if you’re generally very assertive and not very compassionate during a conflict, you might find yourself scoring under the “competing” category, which is characterized by one’s desire to win in an argument. If you’re highly compassionate but aren’t very assertive while in an argument, you would fit in under the “accommodating” category, characterized by those who put others’ feelings before their own. You can take evaluations or quizzes online to help you determine where you sit on this graph, but you will most likely find yourself in different spots depending on the day, with whom you are having a conflict, or the stage of each relationship.
Categorizing conflict styles is helpful so that we can identify patterns in our behaviour and see how we affect others. It also allows us to change our behaviours, as we can understand where they are coming from, and are able to modify it from the source.
So, why would it cost me thousands of dollars to not know my conflict management style? The Cofounder’s Hub has identified some potentially disastrous conflict style combinations, and if you and your cofounder have a bad mix and you leave it unchecked, the chances of a failed partnership sky-rocket, and you will learn a very expensive lesson.
First things first, what’s your conflict style? Remember to keep in mind your cofounder when trying to figure this out, as you might have a different one with a business partner than with strangers, a parent or a romantic partner. To find out your conflict style, you can take this test. We also advise you to ask what your cofounder’s style is.
If you identify with the Avoiding type, it means you are more likely to avoid conflicts, disagreements and serious conversations. You might be inclined to sweep some emotions under the rug, or choose to stay quiet even if you disagree with someone. It’s not an entirely negative trait, though, avoiding confrontation also means you keep a cool head, and thrive in peaceful environments.
One of the main concerns with avoiding-types is: how long can you go on like this? By avoiding conflict, you’re letting resentment build, like a boiling kettle with no outlet for steam. Something that does not seem like a big deal today, plus another small thing tomorrow (and then the following day) will add up to something sizable that you might be unable to ignore. If you bring an issue up only when it’s enormous, you risk blindsiding your business partner who, up to that point, thought everything was fine.
Do you know the belief that lying by omission is still lying? Well, in the same vein, avoiding conflict is still conflict, even though it is internal. You rob yourself of the chance to resolve it by not communicating. Who knows, maybe it’s an easy fix, and you’re losing sleep over it for no reason.
If you are a big avoider, you might even be dodging your cofounder’s attempts to communicate with you. That’s a surefire way to build resentment and feelings of frustration within a partnership. If it’s a big talk you’re trying to avoid, delaying it will only make it worse.
Accommodators are peacekeepers, and are seen as selfless individuals who would ignore their own preferences in order to make someone else happy. In a relationship, that level of accommodation can be appreciated, and be successful in the long term (as long as your significant other is also accommodating). In business, however, accommodating folks can cause an imbalance, or even be seen as weak.
Part of what makes cofounderships so valuable and successful is that there are two (or more) heads working together at all times. However, if one of those heads is constantly conceding, or letting the other(s) have final say every time, the other partner might as well have started a business on their own.
By not speaking your mind, or not fighting for your point of view, you may be unwittingly leading your partnership astray. Make sure you know why you’re conceding every time you feel that urge. Do you want to make your cofounder happy, or do you genuinely feel like their opinion is better than yours? If it’s only the former, you may want to reconsider whether you want to concede or not.
If you have a hard time putting your foot down, the best way to circumvent it is by using language to your advantage. You might find yourself accommodating other people’s feelings constantly because you’re afraid of hurting them, or making them feel like you don’t value their opinion. However, if you phrase your opinions strategically, you can both save your cofounder’s feelings and have your opinion considered at the same time. A few tricks are to start phrases with a compliment or agreement, such as “That’s an excellent point,” or “That would be a great way to handle that issue,” followed by a segue into your own point of view. It would look something like this: “I can definitely see how marketing on Instagram would work. I also happened to read about Facebook Ads lately, I think we should consider that avenue as well.”
A competing conflict management style is the most outwardly aggressive category. If you scored high on “competing”, it is likely that this did not come as a surprise to you. You’ve probably heard a complaint or two from your friends, romantic partners, or family members in the past. The competing style can be very useful when you’re trying to gain respect, intimidate or get things done in a timely manner, as it leaves little room for argument or debate. However, it is not the most conducive style to long-term relationships, as it may leave the other party feeling resentful, unheard and disrespected.
There is a correlation between people with competing conflict management styles, and the use of aggression, yelling, mockery and disrespect. If you find yourself using any of these tactics with your cofounder, do yourself a favour and sign the partnership dissolution agreement now. There is no future for a cofounder relationship where there isn’t a strong foundation of respect, courtesy and appreciation. It can be a dog-eat-dog world out there, but remember that you and your cofounder are on the same team. If in a game of soccer, the teammates wasted time fighting each other on the field, they would lose sight of what really matters: scoring a goal. So, extend courtesy and respect to your cofounder, remember why they’re your business partner, and give them the chance to “win” every once in a while. Aggressive conflict may be all you’ve ever known, so don’t be afraid to reach out to experts that will help you reframe your thoughts on disputes and aggression. Invest in yourself now so you can save thousands of dollars down the line.
People that are more prone to compromise in a conflict aim to please both parties, but also expect everyone to make concessions to meet each other halfway. Although reaching a compromise is usually seen as a good way to resolve conflict, you must strike a delicate balance to pull this off successfully. Compromises often lead to resolutions that are conditionally positive, i.e. one party will only be happy if the other party’s concessions are as big as their own. If one party feels like they are giving up more than the other, or if one side finds that (even with the other party’s concession) the outcome is not balanced, someone will end up upset.
Successfully finding a halfway point between two conflicting views can be challenging, and isn’t always possible. If you’re set on this method of resolution, you might become frustrated often (and frustrate your cofounder too!). The emotional and intellectual effort required from both parties in the conflict will make it so you will have a harder time with avoidant, accommodating and competing types, as they would rather “get it over with”, no matter who ends up hurt in the process. Compromising requires active participation of both parties; you can’t reach a compromise on your own, so there is no “shortcut”. For this conflict management style, you will need to consider what your cofounder’s conflict management style is extra carefully.
The collaborating style of conflict management, or what is also known as the “win-win” style, is usually the preferred type amongst interviewers and business people in general. This is because it suggests that the person is able to communicate clearly, manage emotions effectively and work with another person in order to find the best possible solution. Working together to find a mutually beneficial solution makes it so that the people involved in conflict will not only bond, communicate and work through their issues, but they (hopefully) come out the other side with a solution that pleases both parties.
However, this is not always possible. Some conflicts just do not have the perfect collaborative solution, and other times one might not have the time to dedicate to solving this issue in this way. Other times, your partner might not be able to collaborate in a specific conflict as it’s too emotional for them, or they have too much invested in the problem. For example, if your cofounder’s family member was in an accident and they need to leave the country immediately to see them, they might not have the time (or emotional capacity) to talk through options. For this reason, it’s a good idea to talk about hypothetical situations before they occur (The Cofounder’s Discovery walks you through situations you should preemptively discuss. Want to know more? Click here).
In other situations, collaborating might not be the best approach due to a power imbalance. You might think you’re working with your employee fairly and squarely, but the power dynamic between boss and employee might make it so they feel pressured to agree with you, or they feel anxious about speaking their mind. The false collaboration may be just as detrimental as having to resolve conflict with someone who leans towards the competing style, due to the false sense of fairness.
Now you know the strengths and weaknesses of the different conflict management styles within a business partnership. The Cofounder’s Hub has also identified potentially harmful combinations, how to look out for detrimental conflict management, what to avoid and how to handle disagreements.
Competing and Avoiding
This combination is probably what springs to mind when you first picture a problematic duo. The competing cofounder leads every discussion with aggression and intimidation tactics, making the avoiding cofounder more and more anxious. The inherent lack of trust, overarching fear, and resentment this creates are a partnership killer.
If you do find yourself in a cofoundership where one cofounder is competing while the other is avoiding, you must work together to create solid communication tactics, build trust and form rapport. The first step is to acknowledge the problem and admit it needs to be fixed. First, the two cofounders must work on their issues individually; the competing cofounder mu st control their temper, hone their communication tactics and address their need to come out on top, while the avoiding cofounder must dive deep and try to figure out what it is they’re avoiding when they shy away from conflict, and address those fears first.
Both avoiding and competing styles are trying to save themselves from something unpleasant. The competing cofounder is trying to feel superior, perhaps more in control, or dominant; while also doing their best to avoid the feelings of shame of being wrong or overridden. Shame avoidance can make people act irrationally, and it often explains behaviours such as blame-shifting, bringing past conflict to the present, mockery and even name-calling. The only way to truly avoid shame is to trust that your cofounder will never think less of you or judge your rationale for a bad idea or decision, or trust that you will be forgiven if you admit blame. Work on your trust with your partner.
Avoiding partners will have to learn to trust their competing counterparts to not explode, make negative remarks, or put them down when a conflict is brought up. This trust will take a long time to grow, but can be destroyed with remarkable ease, so be careful. It is also important for the avoiding cofounder to hold the competing cofounder accountable for their actions, and not brush anything aside. There is an inherent imbalance in this mix-up, but the avoiding partner can take some power back by calling out the competing counterpart when they are being out of line.
Competing and Accommodating
Another predictably problematic duo would be a competing individual partnered with an accommodating partner. The nature of the accommodating partner leads them to feel good about giving in to someone else’s demands or needs, as they enjoy acting selflessly. But much like the competing and avoiding pair-up, this partnership will become extremely one-sided, as the competing person will not concede to the accommodating partner’s wants naturally. This will mean that the competing partner will do most of the decision-making, and the beauty and perks of a cofoundership will be lost. If only one cofounder is making decisions in a partnership, the business might as well have a solo-founder, or a silent partner. Remember why you chose to have a cofounder to begin with, and don’t let bad habits get in the way of you making the best decisions for your company.
Competing and Compromising
A competing person paired with a compromising one may create an imbalance in the partnership as the combined focus will not be in the middle ground. The compromising person will dedicate time and effort to trying to find a halfway point, but the competing person might not want to put in the effort to meet in the middle. This can cause frustration and a lack of trust in the partnership, as the competing person is not willing to show the same flexibility as the compromising partner.
Once again, most of the work will have to be done by the competing partner, as they will have to learn how to not “win” every single time, but think about the partnership before their own individuality. Rather than thinking about who in the partnership is “winning” or “losing”, the competing partner has to focus on the wins and losses of the company. Extracting their individuality from the conflict may give their ego the space it needs to be able to concede and/or compromise.
Collaborating and Avoiding
One of the aforementioned issues regarding a collaborating style is that it requires effort, time and dedication. Those things do not come easily; especially if you avoid conflict altogether. People that avoid conflict are also avoiding talking about their feelings, opinions and takes. It may be an aversion to putting their emotions out there, or a fear of hurting others, but it means that they are also not a good fit with collaborating types. Collaborating individuals usually require both parties to communicate fully and effectively in order to be able to guide the conflict to a resolution, but if one partner is avoidant, it makes sense that most of the opinions would come from the collaborating person. This once again leads to an imbalance in the relationship, where the collaborating partner inadvertently gets more say in the decision-making process simply because they are more willing to engage with the conflict.
Collaborating to solve conflicts within a business is arguably the best tactic as it promotes trust and teamwork, so in this mash-up, the avoiding partner is the one that will have to put in the extra legwork. It is important to understand why the avoidant person feels negatively about sharing their opinions or speaking up; did they grow up around aggressive arguments? Do they feel like they get too emotional during conflicts, so prefer to avoid them altogether? Do they feel like they can never find the words when they need them most? Those are all common reasons why people may avoid conflicts. There are tactics used to mitigate those issues and help build confidence and promote a sense of control. A good starting point is to have both partners write down their opinions and points of view before they start discussing, and give each other time and space to share their thoughts.
The Cofounder’s Discovery and Challenge
If you and your cofounder have found that you have conflict styles that don’t pair together very well, or if you’re wanting to take control of your relationship and investment, be sure to check out The Cofounder’s Discovery, where we will guide you through a series of questions that you should not forget to ask your cofounder. Also check out The Cofounder Challenge, and sign up to be taken on an intentionality journey in our 90 day challenge.