On Conflicts & Sandwiches



"Compromising within teams breeds contempt.

Do everything in your power to reduce (or eliminate) compromise."

Source: Ryan Howe in every business class/leadership

seminar plus conversations with his managers.


*Everything that follows is my experience with

implementation of the Thomas-Kilman theory of conflict.


There are five (5) methods for conflict management routinely taught in business courses and training seminars. They are: avoidance, accommodation, collaboration, competing and compromise.


One of the challenges when developing your team is getting them to think critically about the decisions they make on a daily basis. Learning to strike a chord when you're teaching is something you really only learn through doing. However, there are some concepts you can readily share that will connect with almost everyone. The Sandwich Conflict is one such concept I came up with in the early 00's to train managers the perils of conflict management.


Bill and Sally work in the same office for now. Bill and Sally are hungry. Both want to make a sandwich to satisfy their primal urge for food. Bill is wants a delicious ham sandwich. Sally desires a delectable cheese sandwich. However, the gods of this story have determined that as long as they work together the only way they can satisfy their hunger is if they both eat the exact same thing. Here is how each of the conflict management styles play out:


Avoidance: Sally is moving to another office tomorrow. Bill and Sally decide to not eat until tomorrow. Result: They avoided a difficult conversation, but went hungry.


Accommodation: Bill decides to forego his ham so Sally can have her cheese sandwich. Result: Hunger is gone, but Bill is less satisfied than Sally.


Competing: Bill has some level of authority over Sally. He directs her to forego her cheese. They eat a ham sandwich. Hunger is gone, but Sally capitulated to Bill and is less satisfied.


Collaboration: Bill wants a ham sandwich. Sally wants a cheese sandwich. They decide to collaborate by combining the two. Bill and Sally are equally satisfied as they enjoy a ham & cheese sandwich.


Compromise: Bill and Sally each decide to give up something so they can eat. Bill gives up ham. Sally gives up cheese. Hunger is gone, but they are dissatisfied with each other and the situation because they've eaten a bread sandwich. Yuck.


Conflict resolution is considered a success when you use one of these methods to solve an immediate conflict. Great job manager!


But wait...what happens to Bill and Sally's relationship going forward?


You've "solved the immediate conflict", but at what cost?


Avoidance erodes communication.

Accommodation manufactures dissatisfaction.

Competing cultivates division.

Compromise breeds contempt.


Have I used all of these methods in the past? Of course, they do have their time and place, but should be used as a last resort. Time constraints have forced my hand at times, but I have always circled back to figure out what got me in the situation where we couldn't collaborate in the first place. Excluding collaboration, each of the conflict management styles create a net negative feeling within your team.


Think about it: Bill and Sally now harbor disdain because their "teammate" would rather eat a bread sandwich or go hungry than figure out a way to collaborate on a solution. Yikes!


What sort of teammates do this to each other? What sort of leader would consistently allow this type of conflict resolution to take place on one of their teams?


Our teams shouldn't be eating bread sandwiches. When conflicts arise don't rush to solve the immediate conflict at the expense of your team's long term health. Let's make a difference.

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