Web Summit’s Paddy Cosgrave caused quite a stir last week. The founder of Europe’s largest tech event was outspoken in his criticism of host RDS for its shockingly poor WiFi provision, going as far as to claim in a public address that the Summit will leave Ireland if the problem is not fixed. His actions gave me food for thought on the nature of conflict and how we approach it.
While many of us chuckled at the irony of the WiFi debacle (myself included), the reality is that if a similarly charged scenario were to occur our own offices, we would probably be gritting our teeth in discomfort. For most of us, it’s a natural instinct to avoid conflict where possible.
But here’s the thing: would it have been better if Cosgrave, concerned about embarrassing the RDS, had kept schtum and quietly set about plotting the Summit’s relocation? No, of course not – the Web Summit is a huge boon for Ireland, bringing inward investment to the tech industry as well as providing the hospitality sector with a shot in the arm through its 20,000 delegates. If ruffling a few feathers ultimately results in constructive action that keeps the Web Summit booming in Ireland then conflict, in this instance, is good for business.
Cosgrave showed his ability to act decisively to achieve his desired outcome, effectively handling a conflict situation – a key skill for all managers.
In matters of conflict, style is the vital thing
Cosgrave’s approach in this situation can be described as a ‘Competing’ conflict style, which is applicable when you are certain you are correct about a crucial matter, or in an emergency or crisis situation. Cosgrave assertively put the exponential success of the Summit ahead of maintaining a smooth relationship with the RDS and used the greatest power at his disposal (the threat of removing the Summit from Ireland) with the aim of achieving his desired outcome.
Cosgrave assertively put the success of the Summit ahead of maintaining a smooth relationship with the RDS.
When deciding how best to approach a conflict situation, the two most important factors to consider are (i) the relationship between you and the other person (or organisation) and (ii) the relative importance of the issue at hand i.e. the bone of contention.
In the Thomas-Kilmann mode of conflict response, Competing lists alongside four other conflict management styles, each of which is appropriate to a particular relationship/issue dynamic:
- Accommodating – The opposite of competing: sacrificing personal gains to give the other what they are looking for.
Appropriate when… You are conscious that the other side’s position has more merit than your own or the controversy matters more to the other party than to you.
- Avoiding – Not dealing with the conflict directly, for example by diplomatically withdrawing from an argument.
Appropriate when… The issue is trivial or when the pay-off for solving the problem is lower than the potential damage of the controversy.
- Collaborating – Actively working with the other person to find a solution that fully satisfies you both – the classic win-win scenario.
Appropriate when… The desires of both sides are too important for a simple trade-off or seeking consensus to obtain joint ownership of the action.
- Compromising – Coming to a middle-ground agreement: neither person walks away empty-handed.
Appropriate when… You are trapped in a zero-sum bargaining situation with someone of equal strength or merit of argument, where collaboration or competition have already failed to bring about a solution or where you are under the pressure of a deadline.
The lack of WiFi access at the ‘Davos for Geeks’ was so absurdly inappropriate that Cosgrave was justified in taking a Competing stance in his dealings with the RDS.
While a Competing approach to conflict is undeniably good for business in some situations, good managers must acknowledge that it’s not always the best approach. Assessing the nature of the disagreement, the relationships that are at risk, and the most desired outcome must all contribute to consciously adopting the most appropriate conflict management style.
We are all naturally inclined to fall into a particular conflict management style, which is most likely to be our default mode when we are under pressure. However, we can train ourselves to assess the situation and flex our natural response to manage conflict much more effectively.