Volume 11, Issue 3 - March 2013

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VOLUME 11, ISSUE 3: LEAD ARTICLE

Negotiation Barometry: A Dynamic Measure of Conflict Management Style

By Andrea Kupfer Schneider and Jennifer Gerarda Brown
Summary by Adam Vernick

I. INTRODUCTION

For years, in an attempt to help students of negotiation learn the skill, instructors have adopted tools and tests that facilitate students’ exploration of their own negotiation styles and orientations.  One such tool that has been extremely popular is the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (“TKI”).  Despite its popularity among negotiation professors, TKI has its flaws.  For one, in helping students reflect on their “default” or reflexive approach to conflict, TKI seems to assume a “static self” that does not reflect the way styles can change in the course of negotiation.  This paper suggests adjustments to the current TKI in order to capture more accurately these style changes.  The new tool is named the Dynamic Negotiating Approach Diagnostic (DYNAD).  Uniquely, it asks students to assess themselves at the start of a conflict and then after the conflict becomes more difficult.  Awareness of how one’s negotiation style shifts to reflect the rising temperature of conflict can provide crucial lessons to negotiation students.

II. THE APPEAL OF TEACHING “NEGOTIATION STYLES” AND THE USE OF LABELS

After negotiators determine their goals, analyze different methodologies, and assess party interests, they can engage in the more nuanced exercise of making stylistic choices.  Using labels to identify various approaches to negotiation can be helpful for students in understanding general differences in how negotiators might think about, and therefore behave in, negotiations.  Drawing from many different disciplines, labels help describe the different assumptions about the general negotiation methodology; e.g., distributive or integrative.  They also are used more narrowly to describe styles or strategies in negotiation.  Whether employed broadly or narrowly, labels help simplify behavioral patters, demonstrate contrasts, and perhaps most importantly, show students that they have choices.

III. THE THOMAS-KILMANN CONFLICT MODE INSTRUMENT

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (the TKI) is one of the most popular systems for labeling approaches to negotiation.  Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann developed their Conflict Mode Instrument in 1971 at the UCLA Graduate School of Management.  Since its inception, the TKI has been administered to tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.  An exact number is impossible to calculate because the TKI was only available in a self-scorable, pen-and-paper format for several decades. It became officially available online in 2002, however, and researchers were able to collect nearly 60,000 online assessments between 2002 and 2005.  These assessments were used to create an updated norm group, screening for gender, race, full-time employment status, age (between 20 and 70 years), occupation, and organizational level.  As a result, researchers have been able to validate the TKI using a norm group of 8,000 participants who roughly replicate the demographics of the U.S. workforce.

The TKI contains thirty pairs of statements that might describe the subject’s approach to a generic and unspecified conflict with another person.  Respondents are instructed to choose the statement that best describes them, even if not perfectly.  In theory, neither statement is meant to be more socially acceptable than the other.  It is questionable though, if the unbiased character of the TKI can survive a negotiation class emphasizing “principled” or “problem solving” negotiation.  Students who have already been exposed to these approaches to negotiation will likely see some desirability in statements that reflect collaborative negotiation styles.

After respondents complete the thirty-point questionnaire, a scoring instrument identifies a high score in one of five categories: competing, accommodating, collaborating, compromising, or avoiding.  The results can be mapped on a graph with two axes: “assertiveness” and “cooperativeness.”  Seeing how the dominant conflict mode falls on the graph sensitizes a student to ways they may instinctively resolve tension between assertion and empathy, value claiming and value creation, or competition and cooperation.  As such, many negotiation class teaching themes come together and become personalized for the students.

IV. TEACHING THE TKI

The optimal timing for the TKI in a negotiation course syllabus is a threshold issue to consider when teaching the TKI.  There are pros and cons to various schedules.  Advantages to administering the TKI early in the semester include: (1) increasing the student’s personal stake in the course; (2) introducing the tool to students without undue priming from a negotiation literature that promotes collaborating generally; and (3) creation of a shared vocabulary to which students can refer throughout the course.  At the same time, however, mid-semester administration permits students to learn negotiation theory and practice negotiating without the prime of the TKI influencing their experience from the start.  Delayed administration also allows students to contextualize their TKI results in some accumulated negotiation experiences.  Debriefing is also more intellectually nuanced if the students have absorbed substantial negotiation theory.  At the end of the day, any ordering for the TKI in the syllabus is reasonable as long as students have at least a few weeks remaining in the course to synthesize the instrument with additional negotiation experiences.

Having a factual context in mind before students begin choosing from the TKI’s paired statements can be helpful.  Specifically, the factual context should be one involving a relationship in which the student feels they are authentic; their ‘truest self.’  This is important because people often assume an artificial persona in the context of certain relationships; e.g., an intimate family relationship or a relationship with a supervisor or subordinate, and the TKI is meant to measure an authentic and reflexive response.

Scoring the TKI is simple.  Following scoring, debriefing should take place by dividing students into small discussion groups based on their high scores.  It also may be useful to allow the students to join the discussion group representing their lowest score.  Small group discussion can be guided by the following four topics, although there are alternative ways to debrief the TKI: (1) description of predominant response; (2) assessment of advantages/disadvantages of predominant response; (3) advice for others involved in the conflict; and (4) discretion for when, and in what context, it is best to use the predominant response.

Debriefing through discussion prior to moving toward a more graphic representation of TKI results along an X/Y axis is important in light of potential problems with the graph.  One is the fact that the graph presents response-types as nouns (e.g., avoiders).  It is preferable to present each type as a gerund (e.g., avoiding), to emphasize that individuals need not be essentialized or stuck as one type or another.  The TKI describes a subject’s dominant or reflexive approach to conflict, but individuals can and do move in and out of these approaches.  At the end of the day, students need to understand that the TKI is not a lifetime prescription; it is a reflection of the context and frame of mind they happened to adopt the day they completed the questionnaire.  Another issue with the X/Y axis graphic presentation of TKI results is that it may be too prescriptive, leading students to reduce the response types to caricatures.  Debriefing through discussion of the items listed above will elicit conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of each TKI type.

Finally, following in-class debriefing, the TKI should be processed through some reflective writing.  This will help students become more comfortable with negotiation theory vocabulary and able to think of themselves and others in terms of the TKI conflict management types.

VI. THE DYNAD

The Dynamic Negotiation Approach Diagnostic (or “DYNAD”) is based on the TKI and bears some important similarities.  At the same time, however, the DYNAD takes an approach quite different from the TKI in many respects.  The questions in the DYNAD more directly ask about strategic or behavioral choices.  Furthermore, each question that measures a particular approach to conflict resolution only focuses on that approach rather than forcing a choice between two approaches.  The DYNAD includes four statements for each of the five approaches found in the TKI, for a total of twenty questions.

The DYNAD also differs from TKI’s binary choice system in that it asks participants to rate themselves on a 6-point rating scale ranging from “Not at All Characteristic” to “Very Characteristic.”  Importantly, despite this difference with the TKI, students’ responses to the DYNAD may still be more aspirational than realistic, similar to the TKI.  Notwithstanding, a debriefing that pulls out the advantages and disadvantages of each approach will temper the impact of students’ attempt to find the “right” answer.

The most significant advancement the DYNAD makes to the TKI questionnaire is that is asks students about their approaches to conflict at early and later stages of a conflict.  Two statements for each approach begin with the phrase, “When I first discover that differences exist,” and two more statements are introduced with the phrase, “If differences persist and feelings of conflict escalate.”  These phrases are later identified as the basis for the “Calm” and “Storm” Scores respectively.

VII. ASSIGNING AND TEACHING THE DYNAD

The instructor should distribute the paper copy or the link for the online DYNAD instrument at the end of the class session preceding the day they want to discuss the DYNAD.  If the plan is to compare or contrast the DYNAD and the TKI, it is important to give the same or similar prompt for the two instruments.  Students should also answer the two tests with the same conflict or relationship in mind.  By completing the DYNAD after the TKI using the same prompt, students can more clearly see the way sensitivity to the dynamics of conflict can change the picture of their negotiation style.

After scoring of the DYNAD is complete, students are divided into the five TKI approach-based groups described above.  In the first part of the group exercise, participants are assigned to a group based on their “Calm” Score and discuss the same items described above in the TKI debriefing with a particular focus on the advantages, disadvantages, and best situations in which to use this approach at the beginning of a conflict.  Students are then asked to move to another group based on their “Storm” Score, engaging in a similar discussion based on when the conflict has heated up, and with the rule that everyone must move even if their high scores are in the same category for that stage of a conflict.  Different colored markers can be used so that the students’ differing results at the two stages of conflict are made clear visually.

Finally, the small groups are brought back for a large-group debrief.  Much of this debrief is similar to the TKI debrief with several additions.  The group can now see the differences in advantages and disadvantages for each of the approaches.  This fosters a more nuanced understanding of each of the approaches and, arguably, produces better advice about where, when, and how each approach can be used most effectively.  Discussion may reveal that certain advantages or disadvantages of a particular “type” may not persist when negotiators move from “calm” to “storm.”  By highlighting the stage or emotional context of an interaction, the debrief makes it clear that there is no “one” or “best” approach and that each has its benefits and drawbacks.

Another added element of the DYNAD debrief is the discussion about how negotiators may have several default and “back-up” moves.  Awareness that approaches can shift is a useful point to make in terms of cultivating a sophisticated understanding of negotiation choices.  Discussion about shifting approaches can reinforce lessons that negotiators must constantly update and adjust through the course of a negotiation.  They must always be sensitive to the influence and impact of the client, the context, and the counterpart.

VIII. CONCLUSION

Becoming more self-aware is one of the crucial lessons that is taught in negotiation.  Understanding one’s “default” style­­–at least in the context about which you are thinking during a diagnostic test–is one step toward understanding how you react in negotiations.  Recognizing that your style should adjust over the course of the negotiation and that your style should depend on the context and your counterpart are the next important steps toward becoming a more effective negotiator.  A diagnostic tool that promotes the concept of shifting styles makes it easier for students to understand the importance of flexibility in negotiation approaches.  It also makes clearer that there is no “right” answer–rather that each style has its advantages and disadvantages.  By measuring style choices at calm and storm, the DYNAD gives us a better negotiation barometer.

Posted in: Volume 11, Issue 3

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