An Experiential Exercise to Dramatize the Five Modes

Several decades ago, I developed an experiential exercise for classroom and workshop settings in order to accelerate people’s understanding and internalization of the five modes. First I assess the conflict modes of 20 to 50 participants, without scoring their results, so they won’t see their high or low modes. For the moment, all they get to know are these five codes: C1, C2, C3, A1, and A2 (for competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating, respectively).

Then I form the community into five groups based on those codes by noting which individuals have the highest mode score in each category. Since people can have more than one mode in the top 25th percentile, I arbitrarily distribute the tied assignments in order to balance the size of the five groups.

Next, I have each group go through one of the classic experiential exercises developed and/or inspired by Jay Hall: “Lost on the Moon,” “Lost at Sea,” “Desert Survival,” and the like. Basically, group members first rank-order fifteen items that survived the calamity in the order
of each item’s importance for success—such as reaching the mother ship after crash landing on the moon. Then the group discusses the different rankings and underlying beliefs of its members, thus having to resolve its conflicts one way or another. In essence, each group has to develop an agreed-upon group ranking of those same fifteen items by, essentially, using one or more conflict modes.

When the groups have completed this assignment, the facilitator provides the “right answer” for the rankings, which is based on the wisdom and experience of noted experts in the survival field. Having a “right answer” affords some very interesting calculations: (1) Which individual ranking in each group was initially closest to the expert ranking before the group discussion began, representing the most knowledgeable member? (2) What is the average ranking of the individuals in each group, representing the modal wisdom in the group before any group discussion took place? (3) How close did each group ranking get to the expert ranking in these respects? Was the group’s ranking better or worse than the group’s mathematical average of individual rankings—that is, did the group get closer to the right answer during its discussion, or did it get worse? And was the group’s ranking better or worse than its best member’s ranking—that is, did the group develop a synergistic ranking that was even closer to the expert’s than its most knowledgeable member?

While I could spend more time discussing the many implications of these quantitative comparisons, suffice it to say that each group uses one conflict mode to resolve its differences to the outright exclusion of the other four modes, simply because it was initially formed by including only those members whose TKI scores were in the high 25% of that particular mode.

In the competing group, the members attempt to get their group to rank those same fifteen items as close to their own prior ranking as possible, rather than trying to develop a group ranking that is closest to the expert’s ranking. Self-interest takes over when a group is dominated by high assertiveness and low cooperativeness.

The collaborating group incessantly discusses what is behind each person’s view on each of the fifteen survival items, even though several of these items are ranked at the bottom of the heap and thus are unimportant in surviving the ordeal. Having to satisfy everyone completely dominates the group’s attention, regardless of the limited time available for discussion.

The compromising group merely votes on each item or uses a calculator to develop a mathematical average—much like what is done later to measure each group’s success beyond that very average! For this compromising group, here is the unstated, shared belief: “Why discuss a topic when an easier and quicker method is available to develop a group ranking of those fifteen items?”

The avoiding group spends most of its time on other topics, such as the previous night’s football or basketball game.

And members of the accommodating group repeatedly say to one another: “If you think that item should be #1 [and so forth], that’s fine with me. I don’t mind.”

It never fails to amaze me how powerfully this TKI exercise demonstrates the way the conflict modes work, because the concentration of the high mode in each group serves to magnify that conflict-handling behavior to the extreme, due to the power of group dynamics.


Ralph Kilmann

Ralph H. Kilmann, Ph.D., is CEO and Senior Consultant at Kilmann Diagnostics in Newport Coast, California. Formerly, he was the George H. Love Professor of Organization and Management at the Katz School of Business, University of Pittsburgh—which was his professional home for thirty years. He earned both his B.S. and M.S.… MORE >

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