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The strategy of “competing” as a means of gaining power and control stems from early childhood and is reinforced throughout our years in school and college. Many children learn that they can obtain material objects as well as social control over people by using assertive, demanding or aggressive behavior. As they mature they use their talent to compete to “be the best” student, athlete, musician, etc. or to socially compete to be popular and have status among peers. Some youth learn to deal with disagreements by persuading others to accept their position. Others use power negatively in the form of arguments, threats, intimidation, or physical fighting. Youth who are effective at competing are deemed to be successful. Children and youth who do not stand up for themselves in conflicts may be seen as weak. Many video games and other media directed at youth promote the thrill of engaging in conflict with the goal of defeating the “enemy”, often using any means possible. All of these dynamics promote the use of competitiveness. While parents and teachers also instruct children to be kind, considerate, and cooperative there remains a strong inclination toward using competitiveness as a means of solving problems and achieving success.
The value of competing to resolve differences and achieve goals continues into adulthood and employment. Individuals compete for status and position within organizations, sometimes being rewarded for their ability to achieve business goals by being better than their internal colleagues or external business competitors. Successful leaders demonstrate an ability to strategically use their competitive energy and skills for personal and professional benefit. While competing can be productive it can also cause problems when used excessively or inappropriately. It can lead to misuse of power, fraudulent acts, and unethical or illegal activity as we have seen in the situation at Enron and in other business and political events in the news. Truly successful people develop the judgment and skills to use competitiveness effectively and appropriately. Competing is an appropriate form of dealing with conflict when used in the following situations:
Research using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® shows that individuals with consistently competitive personality styles tend to be males who are extroverted-sensing-thinking-judging (ESTJ) or extroverted-intuitive-thinking-judging (ENTJ). Females are less likely than males to have a predominantly competitive personality style. Compared to males, similar type ESTJ and ENTJ females are more likely to have a preference for a compromising approach to conflict. This is probably due to the socialization and traditional roles of females in our society. Competitive males are often characterized in positive terms such as "persuasive" or "powerful" while equally competitive females may be viewed negatively as "demanding" or "aggressive". Individuals whose dominant conflict style is competing tend to see differences among people in dichotomies - skilled/unskilled, right/wrong, winner/loser, competent/incompetent, etc. They usually believe that they are justified in their position and support those who agree with them while opposing those who disagree.
Myers-Briggs research suggests that people who like to be competitive in addressing differences approach problems objectively, using facts and data, and are not inclined to be very concerned about the subjective impact of the outcome on the party who loses. They tend to place high importance on achieving their goals even if it has a negative effect on their relationships. They also like to be decisive and do not want to waste time in considering alternatives. If you find that you, personally, typically become competitive when facing a disagreement or conflict you may want to:
In attempting to address a conflict with another person who differs with you and takes a competitive position it may be helpful to do the following:
When working with individuals or groups as a neutral third party or mediator it is helpful to get the parties to consider the points made above. It is possible that one party will be in a relative power position over another, such as a boss vs. employee or a provider vs. consumer. In these situations the mediator must work to be neutral yet balance the power relationship so that each side effectively presents their case and hears that of the other. Helping the parties in conflict to understand the facts as well as the impact of the disagreement may also move them toward conciliation. After listening to each other competing may still be the conflict mode of choice for one or both parties, or they may elect to take another approach if they determine that it will be more productive.
It is clear that the use of competing to manage conflicts and differences can have both positive and negative implications. It is a powerful and effective approach which can be very successful. However it is important to know when and how to use competing as a conflict management style. Proper use of competing may produce constructive outcomes while misuse of competing can lead to new problems. Being mindful of this can help us to be more productive personally and professionally.
Dale Eilerman operates Conflict Solutions Ohio, LLC working with individuals and organizations to improve relationships and performance. He specializes in the dynamics associated with conflict management and provides clinical counseling, coaching, consultation, training, team-building, and conciliation work including mediation. Dale is a licensed clinical counselor and is the Director of Organizational Learning for a behavioral health organization in Dayton, Ohio. He is also a part-time instructor at the University of Dayton and Wright State University. Dale can be contacted at 937.219.4996 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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