5 Ways We Respond to Interpersonal Conflict

A benefit of my consulting work is that it requires me to learn on a regular basis. As I prepared for an upcoming workshop about organizational conflict I was revisiting some books to refresh my memory. While doing this, I re-encountered a wonderful model about the different ways we respond to interpersonal conflict (Rahim). Five different approaches to conflict are illustrated in this Johari window.


Response 1 – Avoid [low concern for self and low concern for others]

  • Avoid the topic or situation causing the conflict.
  • Example – An email is sent to your team informing them that there is one gourmet cupcake left in the kitchen. Since several of your team want it, you just avoid the conflict and keep working.

Response 2 – Oblige [low concern for self and high concern for others]

  • We give in to what others want when there is conflict.
  • Example – You reach for the final cupcake at the same time your colleague does. You graciously withdraw your hand and say ‘go ahead, you deserve it’.

Response 3 – Compromise [moderate concern for self and moderate concern for others]

  • Find a solution which is acceptable to both parties.
  • Example – Instead of giving the final cupcake to your colleague, you suggest that one person cut the cupcake in half and the other person choose their half first.

Response 4 – Dominate [high concern for self and low concern for others]

  • Attempt to dominate the conflict through power, coercion or force.
  • Example – You tell your colleague that you saw the cupcake first so you deserve it.

Response 5 – Integrate [high concern for self and high concern for others]

  • Find solutions which are acceptable to both parties.
  • Example – You discuss the problem with your colleague and decide that if you sell the sought after cupcake and split the proceeds, you can each buy a whole cupcake at another store on the way home.

This research also has significant cultural nuances to it. For example, cultures that highly value ‘saving face tend to use obliging or even avoidance styles as a means to accomplish this. Rahim’s model is a useful way to identify responses to conflict because it is so easy to remember. Specifically, I appreciate how it reminds us that conflict avoidance is usually a lose/lose situation. So how about you – what’s your go-to style?

Head Shot

Jeff Suderman is a futurist, consultant, and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman Email: jeff@jeffsuderman.com

Source: A. Rahim (1983). A measure of styles of handling interpersonal conflict. Academy of Management Journal.

Photo Source: FreeImages.com/LisaKong

The Paradox of Feedback

This week I had the privilege of conducting leadership development training with a talented group of managers. One of the topics we discussed was feedback. It was one of our most robust discussions and I’ll share some of the ideas we discussed with you today.

Feedback is a paradox because we all want it…but only if we like it. This is why the question “Do you like my new haircut” is fraught with danger! If we respond with a ‘yes’, we usually tell the person what they want to hear. When we respond with a hesitant ‘no’ we can encounter their disappointment, anger or hurt. Our desire for honest feedback is often conditional.

In their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen help us understand why this occurs. They note that people have two basic human needs:

  1. The need to learn and grow and,
  2. The need to be respected, accepted, and loved the way I am now.

Feedback is a great way to learn and grow. For example, my golf swing has improved lately because of some simple feedback that I was given related to my stance when I hit the ball. I want to improve my game (learn and grow) so this feedback was important, valuable and beneficial.

However, sometimes feedback conflicts with our second need. When I was fired by our new president I was given tremendous opportunity to learn and grow (see Why Getting Fired is a Good Thing). But I could not begin to understand this because I faced a wall that told me I was no longer respected or accepted by the organization I had given my all to.

In short, we want feedback unless it bumps into our need to feel respected, accepted and loved. Understanding these two simple needs can help us filter the feedback we receive. Feedback which only meets need number one is easy! However, when feedback bumps into need number two we must assess the causes of our anxiety. Not all feedback is good feedback. But even when it isn’t, we can use it to learn and grow.


Jeff Head Shot 3.jpgDr. Jeff Suderman is a lifelong learner, consultant, professor and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

Leading Globally: Individualistic vs. Collective Cultures

Me or We?

Cultural studies reveal that one of these two biases drives how you prioritize and make decisions. Those who come from a strong collective cultures practice, encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action. In contrast, individualistic cultures reward efforts which promote individual success.

The chart below illustrates some of the most common differences between individualistic or collective cultures. At the bottom of this blog you will find a reference chart which provides specific results for the 62 countries in the GLOBE study.


These biases can be observed in both in national, organizational and family structures. At times, we learn to exhibit different practices in our different environments. A cut-throat work environment may cause you to act individualistically in the office while your South American cultural heritage may foster strong collectivism in other relationships.

While some cultural insights help explain fascinating cultural differences, I find that differences in individualistic/collective worldviews can be the cause of significant conflict. An inner bias of ‘me’ or ‘we’ is a very strong personal driver and, as a result, can fuel intense conflict! As a result, it is critical for effective leaders to be able to assess the individualistic or collective preferences of those they work with.

This blog is part 5 of an 8 part series on global leadership. You may enjoy reviewing some previous posts: Gender EqualityAssertivenessFuture Orientation and, Performance Orientation.

NOTE: The content above has been adapted from the seminal work on global leadership commonly called The GLOBE Leadership Study. It assessed 62 different countries and identified important cultural and leadership norms. The results of this massive research project provide us with a goldmine of information which helps us understand cultural differences.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works inCollectivism 2 the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


House, R., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M, Dorfman, P.W., Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Cultures consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage

Change Agents: The personal characteristics required to navigate change

In the class I am teaching on organizational development, my students are studying how to facilitate change, both personally and organizationally. Part of this process has included discussion about the attributes of people who are good at leading change.

Based on our dialogue, here are four attributes of people who effectively facilitate change:

1. They are willing to be wrong. It takes courage to acknowledge that you are wrong. However, a lack of willingness to do so creates a barrier to change. As Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new”.

2. They embrace learning. Some individuals derive a lot of enjoyment from learning new things. As a result, mistakes are a required ingredient in learning new ideas. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) exemplifies this when he states, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t!”.

3. They know how much they don’t know. This relates to my first point about courage but focuses on the attribute of humility instead. It takes humility to acknowledge how much you don’t know. I experienced this a few months ago when a friend gave me a back-handed compliment. He stated, “I enjoy being with you more than I used to because you are less certain of things”. I trust that reflects personal growth in realizing how much I don’t know!

4. They have a thick skin. Sometimes you have to be tough when you learn hard lessons. John Piper once noted that you will never make it if criticism disables you (thanks to Marissa for this great quote and idea). At times, change will require you to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start again.

In summary, courage, enjoying learning, humility and toughness are all ingredients of people who are good at facilitating change. What are some other attributes you would add to this list?

Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California.

Piper, J.  (2011). The Marks of a Spiritual Leader (p. 25)


Are you Do–>Think or Think–>Do?

The ability to understand the unique ways people think, act and learn allows us to be more effective in our work and personal lives. As I consult, one of my favorite filters to help me do this is determining whether people demonstrate a preference for thoughtfulness or for action. I have dubbed this the ‘do–>think or think –>do’ test.
This concept was developed while listening to a presentation by Robert Moran (Brunswick Group or @robertpmoran). As he discussed an organizations strategy, he used think/do or do/think to define the two strategic options of the company. I have borrowed and extended this principle as it also applies to human and organizational behavior.
Think of some of the people that you interact with regularly (including yourself!) and ask yourself which one of these two categories fits best:
1. Do–>Think: These people are action oriented and like to get their hands dirty. They get to it and are comfortable working with an imperfect plan. Once things are underway or completed, they assess what they have learned and how to improve it.
Example: As I taught a board game game to a group of people this weekend, Ryan interrupted me two minutes into the rules and asked, “can we just begin playing and learn it as we go?” He demonstrated a strong do–>think tendency.
2. Think –>Do: These people prefer to begin by thoughtfully considering what needs to be done. They consider options, line up their priorities and then systematically work their way through them. They are not afraid of action, they just want to spend time on the best ones.
Example: I am teaching some on-line Master’s level courses this fall. The think–>do students in my class are sending me emails in the first week asking for clarification on paper requirements (and also sending in a draft for review prior to submitting the final paper).
We fluctuate between both of these modes of operation each day. Certain circumstances lend themselves more naturally to each of these styles. For example, contrast the difference between the development of a five-year strategic plan versus assembling your child’s new toy. Or perhaps at the height of your busy work season you may not have time to think/do. Sometimes circumstances will dictate our preferred method.
However, I believe that each of us also has an innate bias. I need to tackle large problems with time to think and ponder. In contrast, some industries move so quickly that they often need to be more do/think (think of technology and apps). This filter has helped me understand that I need to shift my preferred style at times in order to work more effectively with the do–>think people or to get work done on a tight timeline.
Here are some ways to apply this principle:
  • Assess the members of your team and identify their tendency.
  • Discuss this model with them and ask them to identify their own tendency? Is it the same as your observation?
  • Identify the person you often conflict with at work. Could your conflict stem from a different do–>think or think–>do orientation?
  • Review whether you identify the style which is different than your own as ‘wrong’ or ‘different’?
  • Determine how having different styles will help you and your team.

There is no single filter that helps you understand a person perfectly. However, the do–>think or think–>do is one tool which is easy to use and often provides you with quick insights about how to best work with a person.


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Social Media Genius: Walmart’s corporate response to a scathing article in the NY Times reveals the power of effective social media.

Walmart Blog long

A portion of Walmart’s blog response to Timothy Egan, a NY Times writer.

A recent New York Times article harshly criticized Walmart for paying low wages to their employees. David Tovar, the Vice President of Communications at Walmart chose to respond to these allegations by using their blog. By posting a red copy edit of the article, he effectively corrected several points that he believed were inaccurate. The point of this post isn’t to support either the NY Times nor Walmart. Instead, the focus is on the effective use of social media

While Tovar’s response is scathing, the use of their own blog to publicize a response avoids an all-out war of words. The secondary publicity of his response through news articles and blogs (such as this post and over 22,000 likes on Facebook) has allowed others to carry the message on their behalf. This type of coverage could not be achieved by purchasing a full-page newspaper ad.

I get tired of receiving daily emails from people telling me they can provide all my social media solutions. Social media is important. However, it supports strategy, it is not strategy. The simplicity of Walmart’s response demonstrates that they get this!

You can read the full Walmart blog post here.