Conflict at The Cupcake Factory – Day 19

Wednesday 13:51, The Cupcake Factory, London

Names have been changed to protect the innocent. He may be she, and she may be he. Oh, and it all takes place at The Cupcake Factory.

Conflict and conflict management is a distinctly human behaviour and is endemic in all levels of society. A glance at this week’s The Economist tells us about ‘disputes’, ‘collisions’ and ‘derailments’ in the political, scientific and economic arenas. Organisational conflict is also rife, with headliners speaking of ‘frozen conflict’ to indicate a temporary solution to an ongoing dispute over e-books between Amazon and Hachette.

There are a number of theories on organisational conflict and conflict management. For example, by using a model that examines an individual’s level of assertiveness and cooperation, as well as the levels of satisfying one’s own versus other’s concern, Thomas was able to identify five distinct conflict management styles, each designed to approach and resolve conflict in different ways.

A recent situation at my new employer, The Cupcake Factory, exemplifies the use of two of these management styles, namely accommodating where another individual is allowed ‘to win’ and collaborating where both parties are seen ‘to win’.

For context, I was recently asked by the Chief Cupcake Chef to give a talk at a prestigious international cupcake fair. Upon hearing of my decision to deliver a standard ‘corporate pitch’ (i.e., presenting benefits and features of our cupcakes), our external sponge consultant strongly advised against it as, in his words, it was ‘going to go down as a lead balloon’. Instead, he recommended a topic I knew very little about, but one that he thought would be better received by the audience. Although I have worked in the cupcake industry for well over a decade, the products and services of my new employer are new to me. I therefore decided to take his advice, as he was more experienced than me in this field. This is the first example of Thomas’s accommodating strategy, as I admitted my proposition was not optimal for this particular occasion.

Admitting that I was wrong did not affect my professional integrity, as I felt I had learned something and it would have been unreasonable of me to ignore the sponge consultant’s advice. Additionally, using accommodating strategy in this particular instance could have been seen as a signal that I’m open to dialogue, which is an essential component of facilitating reflective practice.

As I was no expert on the new topic I called a meeting with the sponge consultant and head of icing development to discuss the structure of the talk. At the meeting, I quickly became aware that neither of my colleagues were volunteering to assist me with the structure of the talk, which meant that I took it upon myself to write it. I specifically asked the sponge consultant if he wanted to get more involved in the talk, but he declined and suggested that it would be better for me to ‘work out’ the structure by myself so that it didn’t sound like I was regurgitating somebody else’s words.

The real conflict situation, which I eventually managed to resolve through using Thomas’s collaborating strategy, came about when I submitted my first draft to my two colleagues, who, after reviewing it, recommended further work. The sponge consultant’s feedback in particular included significant structural changes. My initial reaction, which did not display much emotional intelligence and that I kept for myself, was that of frustration as I felt that recommending significant changes after having declined my request for help on exactly this particular matter was ‘taking the piss’ as we say here in the UK. After some deliberation, I wrote to my colleagues and informed them that I was going to think about their suggestions over the weekend.

Having a few days to think things over and to get some distance from the problem was useful as it allowed me to practice what Raelin calls reflective practice. Ultimately, it made me realise that most of the suggestions were, in fact, on point, and would result in a more interesting talk, even though it meant additional work for me. I used Thomas’s collaborating strategy and informed them that I would incorporate most of their feedback. I went as far as thanking them for ‘pointing me in the right direction’.

Allowing both parties ‘to win’ felt like the right thing to do, as it was only my pride and frustration that were in the way of a good management decision. From the point of view of the sponge consultant, having a senior manager take in his recommendation is a strong signal that I listened and was able to maintain objectivity without allowing emotions get in the way.

While the above case study shows the use of two of Thomas’s conflict management styles, there are three other remaining ways to approach conflict. For example, a more aggressive approach, known as competing, would have been for me to reject my colleagues’ feedback and argue that it was ‘too late’ to make the suggested edits. This, of course, might be damaging in the long-term as my colleagues might feel less inclined to provide constructive criticism in the future. Alternatively, I could have avoided conflict altogether by not asking for feedback in the first place (known as avoiding). In hindsight, this would have resulted in the talk being less interesting and relevant to its audience and may have come across as a sign of my being ‘a lone wolf’.

Thomas’s model allows for a quick categorisation of behaviour in order to find the appropriate management style. Applied to the case of the sponge consultant and his feedback on my talk, it is relatively easy to identify and classify my behaviour. However, the model is simplistic in its approach as it fails to recognise that often conflicts are multi-faceted and a combination of styles may be used. Additionally, Thomas’s model does not take into account the role of power in conflict resolution and, in my opinion, power plays a pivotal part in any conflict management style. For example, the level of power both parties have is instrumental in deciding different outcomes.


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