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Have you ever been to an Indian Lunch Buffet? Assuming that it did not give you indigestion, and that you enjoyed the food, what are your top five favorite dishes? I am going to go on a limb and try to guess them here…

  • Naan Bread or Biryan
  • Tandoori Chicken
  • Chicken Tikka Masala
  • Saag Paneer
  • Gulab Jamun or Kheer

Now, imagine a much ballyhooed Indian restaurant called – ‘Something Palace’ opens up a branch next to your work place. What’s special about this location is that it offers your top five favorite dishes in the unlimited lunch buffet every single day! Even better – for $10.99 you get a groupon for a lifetime of lunches at this location. Would you buy it?

Let’s assume you would. And you show up to buffet one day, ravenous. There is a special welcome counter for those with the groupon – kind of like the priority access line at the airport security check. The host is gracious, friendly and helpful – guiding you at this special counter. You reach out to get the naan and  he transforms into Mr. Hyde! Rapping you hard on your knuckle he directs, some indecipherable obscenities in an Indian language (probably Hindi) your way. Suitably chastised, you reach out for the biryani instead – same results, different obscenities. You adjust your approach and try out the Chicken Tikka Masala and this time, the result is different – he tasers you and gives you an earful of English obscenities!

What the heck is going on, you challenge the host after you recover? Turns out that there was some fine print in the groupon offer you did not read. You can only pick two items out of five in the buffet and he gets to choose which two items those are. So you are resigned to a life-time of lunch of saag paneer and gulab jamun. Would that be a fulfilling or nutritious lunch? More importantly, would that be a fair deal?

What would you do if this happened to you? What if you learned this unjust crime was being perpetrated against millions of people all across the world every single day, cheating them of billions of dollars every year? Chances are that you would not put up with this nonsense. You would get together a class action law-suit, putting the owner and each franchisees of Something Palace out of business and behind bars!

But what would you do if it turned out that you were one of the franchisees yourself? Read on…

Continuing where we paused in ‘Chapter 7 – Waiting for Seeker-Man!’…

It was a Thursday morning when I received my first ‘Bowfinger Delivery’. I was on a call – working from home, looking out at the Hydrangeas, Roses and Crape Myrtles in the garden. My colleague and I were on a meeting to prepare for a meeting (very sad, but very common). We were trying to figure out how we could get more out of our weekly “Core Team Call”. He asked me if I had read a book called Death by Meetingby someone called Pat Lencioni. I said I hadn’t. He typed the name of the book and the author in the chat window and suggested that I take a look at it.

So I went to Borders and got myself this book. It was a page turner if there ever was one, and the most entertaining business book I have ever read! I was hooked! Within a few months, I had bought and read almost all the books by Pat –

  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
  • Silos, Politics and Turf Wars
  • The Five Temptations of a CEO
  • The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive
  • The Three Signs of a Miserable Job
  • Getting Naked

There is much that I learned from Pat’s books. But the first lesson was the importance of conflict to the success of a team. The role of a good leader is to give team permission to engage in constructive ideological conflict, and to encourage them to be passionate without being emotional, Pat said.

But how do you coach your team to manage conflicts constructively? Most of us cringe at the thought of conflict – it evokes memories of all the messy confrontations we have ever had, creating tightness in the pit of the stomach. Often, we just wish that conflicts would go away and any attempt to think about them makes us really uncomfortable. Pat suggested that readers consider the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Indicator, or the TKI.

Displaying my exceptional investigative prowess, and determination, I pulled up the preciouses Googleses on the Internetses. (I am not sure if I am channeling my inner Dubya or Gollum or both.) Googleses, dependable as ever, led me to the book – Introduction to Conflict Management, by Ken Thomas, the co-author of the TKI. Here’s what I learned from Ken…

The purpose of the TKI is to help us manage conflicts in a safe, pragmatic and situation based way. As I started reading the book, the biggest shift occurred when I learned to reframe conflict as a neutral event that can be steered in the desired direction. It’s like a car parked in the driveway. We have the choice to steer it to work or vacation. But if we don’t know how to steer a car, the very thought of driving will make us nervous and uncomfortable. And without the necessary training, chances are that we will steer it into a tree or a wall.

It is a basic human need to go from where we are to where we need to be. We all learn to walk, cycle, drive a car, or use some form of transport to fulfill this basic need. Perhaps the existence of conflict is just as common as the existence of the need to commute, but how many of us learn to drive conflict? So how do you learn to drive conflict? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall and upset Allen Iverson. Practice!!

You begin by learning about the two independent dimensions that influence us in the face of conflict-

  • Assertiveness – How hard we are trying to address our concerns
  • Cooperativeness – How hard we are trying to address the other person’s concerns

I used to think that these two dimensions were opposite and mutually exclusive – I could either be assertive or cooperative, but not both. It turns out that I was mistaken. Ken and Ralph emphasize that you can be assertive and cooperative at the same time. Based on these two dimensions, they proposed five styles of responding to conflict-

  • Avoiding – Low on both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Ignoring a conflict or waiting for more favorable conditions before addressing it.
  • Accommodating – Low on assertiveness and high on cooperativeness. Sacrificing your concerns so that the other person can get what they want.
  • Compromising – Intermediate on assertiveness and cooperativeness. Losing something, gaining something else.
  • Competing – Highly assertive, low on cooperativeness. Getting what matters to you without caring about the other person’s needs.
  • Collaborating – High on both assertiveness and cooperativeness. Trying to get the best possible solution for both parties.

So this brings us to the Groupon Buffet Burglary that is robbing millions of unsuspecting victims as we speak, perhaps even you…

There is no best style for resolving conflicts – each style has pros and cons and we need to select the style that is best suited to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, someone usually denies us the freedom to choose the style that would serve us best. Like the owner at your local branch of Something Palace, this someone raps you on the knuckles or tasers you when you choose some of the five styles of conflict resolution, forcing you to only choose from the remaining two or three styles.

Over time, you get so conditioned to avoid pain that you automatically pick the two styles that won’t get you rapped on the knuckles and tasered. Naturally, it is not a very fulfilling existence, but there is not much you can do about it. Because you aren’t aware of who this someone is, what this someone is doing and how you can prevent this someone from limiting your options. And you are not aware that the someone is you!

Ken’s book opened my eyes to this strange crime I was committing against myself in the face of conflicts every single day. I was denying myself the freedom to choose the style that made the most sense for the specific conflict I was facing. However, before I could change my behavior, I need to understand the reasons behind it. Ken helped me identify two crucial habits that were causing this to happen-

  • Underlying Intentions – When I did not understand why someone was choosing to behave in a certain way during conflict, I often attributed a negative underlying intention behind their actions.
  • Negative Stereotyping – This led me to generalize and negatively stereotype certain people and conflict resolution styles…
    • Avoiders – Keep stonewalling and delaying progress
    • Accommodators – Are door-mats and can’t stand up for what they believe in
    • Compromisers – Will make barter anything to make a deal
    • Competers – Are aggressive bullies who will trample on others to get what they want

Once my auto-response kicked in with these assumptions, I was less likely to constructively manage a conflict with a person whose underlying intentions I suspected. And I was less likely to select a conflict resolution style with which I associated a negative stereotype, even if that were the most appropriate style for the moment.

I had a long way to go before I mastered conflict resolution, but as a wise man once said…

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


It looked like I had taken the first step on a very long and fascinating journey. I was beginning to understand the design of conflict. I had not reached the stage where I could disrupt my auto-response, but I was starting to notice when it was hurting me. What about you?

  • What is your auto-response in the face of conflict?
  • Which of the five styles of conflict resolution do you tend to overuse? Which styles have you conditioned yourself to under-use?
  • Why does this happen? What role do underlying intentions and negative stereotyping play in enabling your auto-response?
  • How is this costing you? Is the cost high enough to sit up and take notice?
  • If yes, what do you do next?

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