Management Articles


Key Steps in Collaborative Problem Solving

By: Judy Worrell

Judy Worrell is a principal in Affinity Consulting. She works with teams to achieve high level teamwork where everyone is a winner.

Conflict is an inevitable part of life - in working relationships and personal relationships. If not dealt with effectively, conflict results in increasing tension and unresolved problems. Yet many individuals avoid conflict by backing away, fighting back (competing) or sacrificing their own view (accommodating).

These behaviors have been conceptualized in a well-recognized model developed by Kenneth Thomas. He described conflict behavior along two dimensions (illustrated in the diagram below). These dimensions are - cooperativeness and assertiveness.

Each style or behavior has some usefulness, depending on the situation. However, the preferred style in most cases, is that of the collaborative problem solver who is high in both the cooperative and the assertive dimensions.

This article will outline six key steps in applying a collaborative problem solving style of conflict management.

1. Diagnose the conflict
What is causing the conflict? Is this a value conflict, role conflict, different goals?
Who is involved in the conflict? Is it between individuals, an individual and the team, factions?

How: Assess and observe the situation. Be objective and focus on the behavior, not the person. Use the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) to provide insight into conflict management styles of team members. (For more information on the TKI: U.S. click here; Canada click here)

Pitfall: Taking sides. Imposing your own values. Take care with values conflicts. Unless there is a tangible effect on the parties, it is sometimes best to tolerate the situation. Try to avoid letting the value conflict cloud the positive aspects of the relationship.

2. Initiate discussions
Let people know how their conflict if affecting performance. Keeping attention on the work-related problem, not the personalities involved, can help people realize why it is important to resolve the conflict.

How: Be direct and specific, include all key people, meet as soon as possible.

Pitfall: Showing partiality or favoritism, jumping to conclusions.

3. Listen
Give everyone involved a chance to present their viewpoints objectively.

How: Protect each from interruption, keep the discussion focused on the problem and curtail blaming, connect what they are saying to performance or results. Each party must actively listen and reflect back the other person’s position

Pitfall: Emotional behavior. Establishing ground rules for the discussion is useful in preventing this pitfall from happening.

4. Problem solve
Clarify and agree on the problem before jumping to solutions, come up with possible solutions and evaluate them, decide on the best solution.

How: Summarize different perspectives and ask individuals involved if they agree or have each person summarize the other’s views, ask all involved to contribute to coming up with solutions, ensure that the solution matches the problem and takes everyone’s needs into account.

Pitfall: The parties cannot agree on the problem statement or the root causes cannot be identified. Asking for a third party opinion can lend greater objectivity.

5. Negotiate

Get commitment on what each person will do to solve the problem. All parties need to be clear on what the solution is and that they need to accept responsibility (individually and as a group) for making it work.

How: Discuss alternatives until agreement is reached, have each person summarize their understanding of what they have committed to do.

Pitfall: Glossing over commitment – do not ignore resistance or reluctance to commit to action. This usually means that someone’s point of view did not get enough air-time. If this happens, go back to steps 3 and 4.

6. Follow-up
Summarize and set up a follow-up date to make sure that the conflict has been resolved.

How: Set a definite date and ensure that the meeting takes place.

Pitfall: Other problems and priorities get in the way. Make this problem resolution a top priority. Conflict has a way of resurfacing if not fully addressed the first time around!

Conflict can be managed effectively and have positive outcomes beyond the immediate problem solving. It can result in new and innovative approaches to workplace issues and help your team in their journey towards high performance!

© Copyright 2003 Affinity Consulting. All rights reserved.

Other Articles by Judy Worrell

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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