In 1970, while enrolled in UCLA’s doctoral program in the behavioral sciences, I took the Myers Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI) assessment for the first time. I came out as an INFP — very slight on I, moderate on F, but very clear on N and P. Later, as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, I published several books and articles using psychological type to classify, for example, different organizational and group structures, different criteria for measuring organizational effectiveness, and different steps for defining and solving complex problems.
In 1972, Dr. Ken Thomas and I developed the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). Over the next few years, we published several articles on the validity and reliability of our instrument, exploring, among other topics, how the five conflict-handling modes (competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating) were related to many aspects of interpersonal and organizational effectiveness. In 1975, we published an article that reported fascinating results from correlating the MBTI assessment with the TKI tool.
During the next decades, I regularly used both the MBTI instrument and the TKI tool in my consulting projects for the purpose of transforming bureaucratic, rigid, closed, Newtonian Organizations into adaptive, flexible, open, Quantum Organizations. But I never published what I had learned from using psychological types and conflict modes together for improving individual and organizational performance — until now.
After nearly four decades of working with the TKI and MBTI tools, it has become easy to see the powerful links between the two assessments (and to realize that it’s hardly a coincidence that CPP, Inc., publishes both of them). Thanks in part to my experience with these instruments, I now see every member of an organization (regardless of organizational level or functional area) as a “problem manager.” Thus, everyone’s work, in one way or another, is to (1) sense problems, (2) define problems, (3) derive solutions, (4) implement solutions, and (5) evaluate outcomes.
Defining the Problem: Four Type Perspectives
As I pointed out above, problem managers must first define the problem before solutions can be derived and implemented — and that is no easy task. Today’s organizational problems are highly complex, and one person rarely, if ever, has all the necessary information and expertise to define and solve the problem. Typically, therefore, many diverse people must be actively involved in the steps of problem management.
To ensure that an organization’s most important problems will be correctly defined, I begin my consulting projects by gathering twelve to fifteen members who sense a vital problem, who have different areas of expertise and different interests, and whose commitment to a solution is critical to ensuring its effective use.
After these members discover their personality type using the MBTI instrument, I divide them into four type groups based on the middle two letters of their type: an ST group, an NT group, an SF group, and an NF group (also called C-Groups, for “conclusion groups”). I then ask each group to define the root cause of the problem, decide how the problem should be resolved (given the group’s definition of the problem), and describe how the solution should be implemented. Regardless of the topic at hand (for instance, making strategic choices, redesigning departments or jobs, improving reward systems, assessing the need for a new training program, recruiting new employees, addressing customer complaints, or creating new products or services), you can bet that the four type groups will present radically different approaches to defining and solving a complex problem.
On one side of the problem management coin, the four type groups generally will develop four radically different problem definitions. Without this approach, a more limited range of positions would be exposed. On the other side, the radical differences across the four groups intensify their underlying conflicts: The ST group typically focuses on the short-term, detailed, technical aspects of the problem — no matter what the topic. The NT group usually focuses on the long-term, global, technical aspects. The SF group naturally focuses on the short-term, unique, personal aspects of the problem. And the NF group tends to focus on the long-term, general, human aspects. But how can these predictable — major — conflicts among the four type groups be resolved for the benefit of the organization and the satisfaction of the members?
Solving the Problem: Synthesis and the Five Conflict Modes
This brings us to the organic partnership between psychological types and conflict modes in the workplace — between the TKI and MBTI tools — which melds the two sides of the problem management coin. After every member in each type group has taken the TKI assessment and knows his or her profile of conflict-handling modes, each group decides which two of its members, as a package, have a balanced TKI profile. In other words, which two people from each group have combined TKI profiles that represent a medium score (the middle 50 percent) across the five conflict modes — and thus are capable of using all five equally well? If more than two people have a balanced profile, then additional criteria (such as unique expertise, experience, and passion to address the problem) can be used to select the two representatives from each group.
A synthesis group (also called an S-Group for short) can then be formed by combining the two representatives from each of the four type groups. The mission of this eight-person team is twofold: (1) to identify all the radical differences that arose across the four type groups and (2) to resolve those differences by making appropriate use of the conflict-handling modes.
The synthesis group first lists those issues that need to be resolved by collaborating (because those issues are of utmost importance to all members). Then it lists the differences that can be addressed by using each of the other conflict-handling modes — based on the standard TKI criteria that stipulate when each mode is most effective. Once all the differences have been sorted into the five modes, the synthesis group addresses each issue using the agreed-on conflict-handling mode. Knowing in advance which mode will be used for each issue goes a long way toward getting the most out of the discussion — and the problem.
A Key Distinction
It is clear that the MBTI instrument assesses personality preferences that are rather stable over a long period. Thus MBTI training programs are able to help people appreciate their similarities to and differences from others, but they are unlikely to result in people changing either their psychological type or their overt behavior in conflict situations. In contrast, the TKI tool assesses conflict-handling behavior, not enduring personality preferences. As a result, TKI training programs are able to teach people, in a relatively short time, to consider — and then enact — a wider range of behavioral choices for managing conflict.Why is this distinction important? The use of the MBTI assessment and type groups ensures that the enduring aspects of a complex problem will be brought out into the open for public discussion. But it is through TKI training that people will be able to quickly improve how they manage their differences, so that they can achieve the best, most satisfying resolution for all their workplace and organizational problems.
The Bottom Line
For the most important, most complex challenges appearing in the workplace, the combination of (1) establishing four type groups (focusing on the two middle letters of the types assessed using the MBTI instrument) and (2) subsequently forming one synthesis group (balancing the five conflict modes assessed using the TKI tool) provides the most potent, two-pronged approach for illuminating and managing differences among an organization’s many problem managers.
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