How to better deal with conflicts at work

How to better deal with conflicts at work

Picture all the people at work with whom you regularly come into contact. If you're like most people, your colleagues fall into one of four categories: cool, okay, at times irritating, or really annoying.

Now, what if you had a tool to better understand the dynamics behind conflicts at work, learn ways to handle them, and discover why the people who trouble you most should be your best friends?

Such insights are possible with TIPS, the cognitive profiling tool I created for my company Thinkergy. It uses four home bases (Theories, Ideas, People, Systems) and four styles (thinking, working, interacting and living) to create innovator profiles. It has other business applications, however, such as pointing people towards careers that suit their talents, putting together work teams, and managing people according to their preferred styles.

TIPS can also help explain why some people clash at work. Such conflicts are grounded in different fundamental value orientations and cognitive styles. Let's explore the conflict dynamics at work between the four TIPS bases, and how they relate to each of the four TIPS styles. Visualise a grid containing two rows of two squares each. Clockwise from top left, they read T-I-P-S:

Your "cool" colleagues tend to belong to the same TIPS base, as they share your core values: theories, theses and truth at the T-base; ideas, inspiration and innovation at the I-base; people, partnership and party at the P-base; or systems, structure and status at the S-base. They also prefer the same styles of thinking, working, interacting and living. So when people are essentially alike, they tend to like and respect each other, and the potential for conflict is very low.

Your "okay" colleagues tend to belong to the base that vertically connects to yours (T vs S and I vs P). They occasionally disagree with you because they prefer a different work style (brain vs brawn). "Brainy" T- and I-workers love to think their way through conceptual projects that they work on in longer time blocks of 3-4 hours. In contrast, "brawny" S- and P-workers enjoy labouring through a to-do list full of short-term tasks scheduled in much shorter intervals of 15-30 minutes. In roughly one in four work situations (often related to scheduling meetings or agreeing on completion times), these differences lead to friction with people who are otherwise "okay".

Your "irritating" colleagues belong to the TIPS bases that are horizontally opposite yours (T vs I and S vs P). Arguments occur because your preferred thinking styles differ (figure vs fantasy). For example, T-people logically deduce the one right solution by following a sequential flow, while I-people synthesise many solutions by connecting the dots in a more freewheeling style. T-thinkers say I-thinkers have no proof to substantiate their solutions logically; I-thinkers counter that the scientific approach of the T-thinkers is too slow, linear and narrow.

Your "really annoying" colleagues belong to a base that is diagonally across from yours (T vs P and S vs I). Here, we can expect clashes in three out of four work situations, as both thinking and work styles differ. They also differ from you in either preferred interaction style or lifestyle:

1. Because of substantial differences in interaction styles (fact vs feeling), expect frequent annoyances or hurt feelings when T- and P-people cross paths. Why? T-people make a case based on facts and hard evidence. They argue in a direct, logical and often blunt way that offends sensitive P-people, who consider the feelings of others. On the other hand, "touchy-feely" P-people may annoy more aloof T-people by invading their space and -- heaven help -- even engaging in physical contact.

2. A second major conflict zone runs across the S- and I-bases, given the differences in preferred lifestyle (form vs flow). Highly dynamic I-people love to take risks and shake things up. This infuriates S-people, who dislike anyone upsetting the status quo.

So, now that you know why you get along so well with some colleagues and regularly have issues with others, how can we use these insights to reduce, moderate and mitigate conflicts? Here are four tips:

1. Differences divide, diversity enriches. Every TIPS base and profile has its value and place. Good work performance and harmony arise from finding the right mix of talents and styles at the right time.

2. I'm okay, you're okay, everyone is okay. Many conflicts at work aren't personal, but rather are related to different value orientations and variations in preferred styles. Make an effort to appreciate other points of view. Follow Stephen Covey's advice: "First seek to understand, then to be understood."

3. Find moderators to bridge conflicts. Colleagues who express both TIPS bases or styles can help moderate conflicts. For example, conceptualisers are ideal to cool an intellectual dispute between a theorist and an ideator because of their thinking style (figure and fantasy). Or use a coach (located on the diagonal axis connecting the T and P bases) to moderate a conflict between a theorist and a partner.

4. Opposites complement. Who are your "new best friends at work" -- or who should they be? Those colleagues who most annoy you. Why? Because they are strong in all those areas where you are weak; because they enjoy doing the things that you dislike doing; and because they value aspects of business that you prefer to ignore. They cover your shadow-side, just like you light up their shadow. You balance each other's energy to provide a Yin-Yang harmony. Are you ready to make that leap?

Dr Detlef Reis is the founding director and chief ideator of Thinkergy Limited (, an innovation company in Asia. He is also an assistant professor at the Institute for Knowledge & Innovation-Southeast Asia (IKI-SEA), Bangkok University, and an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He can be reached at

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