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Conflict-resolution mode #4: Competing -- 'My way or the highway'

An overview of one of five conflict-resolution modes -- competition -- and how and when to use it.

The following tip describes the competition conflict-resolution mode. Return to the main page for information on the other four modes and how to work with them to help keep your job. Brought to you by CONNECT: The Knowledge Network.


A successful business sponsor must be able to articulate a vision, especially the "why" component: Why is a project, direction or program worthwhile? This requires a competitive nature, which is why most successful business sponsors tend to be competitive. On a recent engagement, we encountered a business sponsor whose dominant mode was competing, a mode that served him well: Within a short period of time, he moved up in the organization, securing significant influence over senior management.

Once in a position of power, this business sponsor began to evangelize certain projects, including an ambitious business intelligence solution. Senior management bought into the concept right away, as did a variety of potential end users. The sponsor was then charged with the duty of working with a key IT manager to develop the vision, purpose, goals, objectives and budget for the project.

Unlike the aggressive business sponsor, the IT manager was more of the mild-mannered type. His natural mode of handling conflict was to compromise, as he often found himself trying to manage expectations on both sides: his development team and the end users whom they served. For this particular project, the IT manager took a more pragmatic approach, insisting that the business sponsor was asking for too much in too short a time period, without nearly enough budget.

The business sponsor resorted to his natural conflict resolution mode: competition. When the IT manager pushed back, the sponsor went over the man's head, taking his story to senior managers who again sided with their ambitious visionary. The IT manager began to feel additional pressure to fall in line, but instead responded with an even firmer stance against key elements of the proposed project. His argument was simple: The project was too ambitious both in terms of time and resources. The requirements gathering process alone would take twice as long as proposed, he said.

Time went by and deadlines loomed. The business sponsor hadn't encountered such a situation before, having always gotten his way. As a critical date approached, the sponsor realized that his reputation was now on the line. The project would get off track unless something happened, and there was every indication that the IT manager would stand his ground regardless.

Ultimately, we were brought in as a third-party facilitator. We met with each party and explained the five modes of conflict resolution. Almost immediately, the business sponsor realized that his position had to change. He agreed to a longer time table; the IT manager then jumped on board enthusiastically; and the project got off the ground successfully, only a couple months after the sponsor had initially hoped it would go live.

Ideal uses:

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) notes that competing is characterized by high assertiveness and low cooperation. Following are some ideal uses of competing:

  • Emergencies -- If the building is burning down, you won't want to waste much time trying to collaborate or avoid. The same holds true for other, less severe emergencies.
  • Unpopular decisions -- When making unpleasant announcements or decisions, the competing mode's lack of regard for the concerns of others definitely helps.
  • Vital issues -- For issues of great importance, competing is valuable for the same reasons as with emergencies.
  • Protection -- When non-competitive behavior may cause negative results for you or your concerns, competing should be used in order to communicate your message. For instance, if you work with many competitive people, you may need to speak up more often than you normally would.

Excessive usage:

Many people overuse the competing mode because they simply don't know any other way. Others compete excessively because they like conflict, or are otherwise keen to show what they can do. The dangers of overusing the competing mode include:

  • Minimal feedback -- If you compete too much you will eventually drown out the voices of others around you. Shy people and perhaps even audacious colleagues will withhold comment on important issues out of a sense of futility. You may find yourself surrounded by "yes" men.
  • Reduced learning -- In addition to overshadowing your colleagues, excessive competitiveness also leads to other forms of reticence such as fear to ask questions. When your coworkers fear judgment or recrimination for making basic inquiries, the end result is that they don't learn as well, resulting in decreased performance.
  • Lost motivation -- When people don't feel like their ideas or accomplishments are appreciated, they often tend to lose motivation. Too much competition can quickly bring about this dearth of initiative.
  • Escalation of conflicts -- In an environment already fraught with overuse of competing can avoidance can be contagious, resulting in an atmosphere devoid of candid dialogue.

Insufficient usage:

People who fear displeasing others can underuse the competing mode, as can people who are naturally accommodating or reticent. Underuse of competing can cause many problems, including:

  • Limited influence -- Influence is a fleeting phenomenon; if you don't use it, you'll likely lose it. Some competition is always good for making sure your voice is heard.
  • Indecision -- Lack of competition can cause indecision in the workplace, which sometimes results in chaos. Most people want to know that someone is in charge and will take a stand when necessary.
  • Lethargy -- Too little competition inhibits decisive action; and lethargy can be contagious. The early bird gets the worm because of competitiveness.
  • Sub-par decisions -- If you compete too rarely, you are surely depriving your company of valuable ideas and insight. Everyone brings a unique perspective to the table, and successful companies are those in which every person feels free to speak their mind.

Necessary skills:

Competing requires a number of valuable skills, including:

  • Debating -- Effective competitors know how to debate. They can articulate their messages to a variety of audiences, and they're usually good on their toes.
  • Gumption -- Knowing how and when to use authority is key, as is the will the stand up for what you believe and take changes.
  • Steadfastness -- Rarely will strong competitors encounter little resistance. Inertia is everywhere in corporate life, so effective competitiveness requires resilience: you must be able to stand your ground.

Return to the main page for information on the other four conflict-resolution modes and how to work with them to help keep your job.


About the authors: Maureen Clarry and Kelly Gilmore Dignan are co-owners of CONNECT: The Knowledge Network.

CONNECT is the only company that uses a workforce effectiveness approach called Human Performance Optimization™, to connect their clients with the best Information Technology consultants to solve specific business problems. CONNECT optimizes IT personnel performance through management consulting and training around organizational issues related to IT.

CONNECT was featured in The Data Warehousing Institute's (TDWI ) Best of Business Intelligence 2003 for an article entitled, "Predictable Pitfalls, Paths to Partnership." CONNECT is on the faculty of TDWI and teaches regularly on leadership issues related to data warehousing. Other TDWI publications authored by CONNECT include: "10 Mistakes to Avoid When Building a Data Warehouse Team, 10 mistakes to avoid when choosing a data warehousing consultant and How to choose a data warehousing consultant. CONNECT also participates on the Data Warehousing Advisory Board for The Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

CONNECT was recognized as the 2000 South Metro Denver Small Business of the Year, and has been listed in the Top 100 Women Owned Businesses, the Top 250 Privately Owned Businesses in Colorado, and by the Denver Business Journal as one of Denver's Forty Under 40 Business Leaders.

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