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<xTITLE>Collaborating: The Most Complex and Least Understood Mode</xTITLE>

Collaborating: The Most Complex and Least Understood Mode

by Ralph Kilmann
November 2011 Ralph Kilmann
The collaborating mode is positioned at the upper-right corner of the TKI Conflict Model along the integrative dimension. Even though this mode sounds ideal to most people, because it promises a win-win outcome, it can be used successfully only under the right conditions. In fact, there are more conditions that determine whether the collaborating mode will achieve its potential than is the case with any other conflict mode.

To begin with, when people are faced with overwhelming stress, they don’t have the mental clarity to engage in a productive dialogue about each other’s underlying concerns. As a result, they tend to find one of the other modes more suited to the high-pressure situation. Only if the stress is stimulating, inviting, and manageable can the collaborating mode possibly result in a win-win outcome. Moreover, overwhelming stress often creates the impression that there is so much to do in so little time. With collaborating, however, it takes time for people to explore and then express what they really want and need. Thus, only use collaborating when you have the time (or can take the time) for an engaging conversation. If the apparent incompatibility between people is unidimensional— such as a tug of war between the union and management concerning whether the hourly wage should be $12 or $16—using the collaborating mode may be a big waste of time. The whole debate will surely hinge on whether one wage is more deserved, versus costeffective, than another (somewhere between the $12 and $16 rate).

In the end, one position will be chosen over the other (with competing and accommodating) or an in-between solution will partially satisfy each party (with compromising).

Yet, if the single issue in a proposed wage agreement can be expanded into something multidimensional—to include, for example, working conditions, flexible work time, participation in the decisionmaking process, and greater opportunities for taking educational programs—using the collaborating mode has the best chance to create a fully satisfying package for all concerned. An hourly wage on the economical side of the debate—say, $13 an hour—may be more than compensated, in the union’s eyes, by a specific and enforceable plan to improve the quality of work life, which has features that mean a lot to the workers. A creative package of both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, due to its multidimensional nature, can therefore result in a win-win agreement between the union and management.

Because collaborating requires an open, candid, and creative exchange among people whose needs at first appear to be incompatible, the relationships between them must be based on trust, which must also be supported by a corporate culture that encourages the same. Moreover, the organization’s reward system must have a history of rewarding people for expressing their real concerns as opposed to a legacy of critical incidents where employees have learned that people who had challenged the status quo later received a poor performance review—or even an abrupt dismissal. Using the collaborating mode can be personally dangerous if it is not based on a trustworthy culture and reward system.

Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, to use collaborating effectively, people must communicate, verbally and nonverbally, in ways that fully respect and honor one another. However, if people don’t have the interpersonal skills to discuss differences in a manner that does not produce defensiveness, any attempt at collaborating will likely fail. Especially since full use of this mode may require people to share their innermost feelings with one another (and actively listen when others are sharing theirs), a higher level of interpersonal skills is needed with collaborating than with any of the other conflict modes.

In the end, although traveling up the integrative dimension to the collaborating mode has the potential to fully satisfy all persons involved in a conflict, it is important to understand when and under what conditions this ideal-sounding mode has the best chance to realize its promise—win-win for all.


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. degrees in industrial administration from Carnegie Mellon University (1970) and a Ph.D. degree in management from the University of California, Los Angeles (1972).

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