Nursing Strategies: Common Tactics for Managing Conflict

Part 2 of a 4-part series

This is Part Two of a multi-part series that focuses on conflict in the workplace. Part One detailed the causes of conflict in health care, explored the hidden costs of conflict, and explained the three stages of the conflict model.

One of the topics we’ve focused on heavily in the American Sentinel health care blog is building leadership skills at every stage of your career. Well, here’s something to consider: leadership and conflict go hand-in-hand.

Nursing managers spend between 25 and 40 percent of their time dealing with conflict, according to various surveys and estimates. Doesn’t it make sense that your organization would actively seek out and promote those individuals that demonstrate early in their careers the ability to address conflict in productive ways? Whether you’re a nurse manager or an advancement-minded staff nurse, one of the best career strategies you can employ is to become adept at managing and resolving conflict.

The five styles of managing conflict

Many experts have studied the ways in which people respond to conflict. One tool that’s been developed is the Thomas-Killman Instrument (TKI). It identifies five different styles, or tactics, that people commonly use when faced with a conflict: accommodating, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and competing. Each of the five styles comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Do you recognize your preferred style of dealing with conflict here?

  • Accommodating refers to smoothing things over. The goal with this tactic is to yield – to preserve harmony and relationships at all costs (although sometimes this means ignoring the issue at hand, which can be detrimental to a long-term solution). It may be used effectively when you’ve realized you’re in the wrong, when the issue is clearly more important to the other party than it is to you, and when you want to build goodwill and demonstrate that you’re reasonable. But beware! If you use this style too often, you may be seen as weak, ineffective, or fearful of change.
  • Compromising refers to a bargaining process that often results in a less-than-ideal solution as concessions are made (one party may be willing to give up something on this issue to gain leverage for another). Still, this tactic may be useful in arriving at a temporary settlement on a complex issue, or a quick fix when time is of the essence. It’s best used for issues of mild to moderate importance – you wouldn’t want to compromise on an issue of patient safety, for example. And it may work well when both parties have equal power in the hierarchy and are equally committed to their position. Overuse of this style can have negative consequences, however. Parties may lose sight of long-term goals or become cynical as concessions are made to keep people happy without resolving the original conflict. A frequent compromiser may be seen as having no firm values.
  • Collaborating is true problem solving. The goal is to find a mutual solution when both sets of interests are too important to be compromised – for example, when an issue of patient safety is at odds with the need to use limited resources strategically. The process of collaborating involves high amounts of both assertiveness and cooperation, as parties with different perspectives attempt to merge their insights and work through the conflict. This is generally considered the most effective style of managing conflict, yet it also has pitfalls – use it for everything and you’ll find yourself spending exorbitant amounts of time sorting out trivial issues.
  • Avoiding conflict is not generally advised. Yet even this tactic can be used strategically, for example to create a delay that allows people to cool down or gather more information. Experts recommend using avoidance only when the issue is of small importance, when you know you can’t prevail against a more powerful opponent, or when the potential damage of a confrontation outweighs the benefits. Nurses who avoid conflict at all costs are at odds with the profession’s goal to advance the standard of care delivery – they are not leaders.
  • Competing is generally a negative way to manage conflict. The goal is to “win” at all costs and the style is characterized by high assertiveness and low cooperation – for example when a person uses her rank to force an issue to resolution. Yet it might be a useful tactic in an emergency when quick, decisive action is vital, or where an unpopular course of action must be implemented. A manager who uses this tactic too often, however, will likely end up with a team of unempowered nurses who are indecisive, slow to act, and prone to withhold feedback.
Demonstrating conflict resolution skills is just one sign that a nurse is a leader. Learn how you can empower yourself with an online RN to BSN or RN to MSN degree.
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American Sentinel's "On Call" reports on the changing health care system from our Health Care Desk. Our blog explores current industry topics, changes, and debates happening in the modern health care system that impact nursing and health care professionals.
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