Breakthrough in Modifying the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument to Examine Specific Situations

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Kilmann Diagnostics, an e-learning company that provides online courses with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), is now using this classic assessment tool in a new way for more accurate results in organizational settings.

The TKI Conflict Model

The TKI Conflict Model

But now we can be even more accurate, since we won’t be diluting the TKI results by using generalized instructions when we wish to learn about a very specific situation.

Kilmann Diagnostics (KD) offers recorded online courses that make extensive use of the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument (TKI), which is the world-leading assessment of the five conflict-handling modes: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating.

Developed 40 years ago, the TKI tool has always included the same standard instructions that do not stipulate any particular situation. But in KD’s eight-hour online course, Advanced Training in Conflict Management, Dr. Ralph Kilmann, the co-author of the TKI Assessment and CEO of Kilmann Diagnostics, now instructs consultants, trainers, and coaches on how to carefully modify the traditional TKI instructions to achieve more accurate results for specific organizational settings.

Here are the long-standing instructions to the TKI: “Consider situations in which you find your wishes differing from those of another person. How do you usually respond in such situations?” The person is then provided with 30 A/B items, describing possible behavioral responses to conflict situations. The respondent selects either the A or B option for each item, depending on which best characterizes her behavior. After completing the assessment, the TKI profile shows which conflict modes the person might be using too much or too little, as compared to a large normative sample. This diagnostic information allows the respondent to begin taking steps to improve her conflict-handling behavior.

Dr. Kilmann described when those standard TKI instructions do not provide the most accurate results for respondents: “For many years, there were always people in the audience who’d ask: ‘What situation should I consider when I respond to this assessment?’ I would give the usual answer: ‘Don’t think of any specific situation, but rather all the situations you regularly encounter. That way, your results will capture your behavior across all those situations.’ Then the person would often provide this self-observation: ‘But I behave very differently at work than when I’m at home.’ In response, I would say: ‘That may be true, but it’s still best if you consider all situations—your behavior in general—as you respond to each item on the TKI.’”

Dr. Kilmann recalled when his approach to addressing these questions suddenly changed: “Years back, I was conducting a workshop on conflict management for the senior management group of a large organization. Several of the participants had the typical concerns about the TKI’s instructions. This time, however, I spontaneously gave a different answer: 'With regards to this workshop, which situation would you like to consider as you respond to the 30 A/B items on the TKI?' After an open discussion, the senior management group developed these revised instructions for taking the assessment: ‘In this organization, how do you usually respond when you find your wishes differing from those of another person?’”

According to Dr. Kilmann, that workshop opened the door to all kinds of other modifications for the TKI instructions: “In this work group....” “When interacting with your customers....” “With respect to your immediate family....” “When dealing with other departments....”

Dr. Kilmann emphasized the unintended—beneficial—consequence from modifying the TKI instructions to suit the particular circumstances of the respondents: “Instead of irrelevant situations creeping into the TKI results, by responding to all 30 A/B items with situation-specific instructions in mind, the group members’ discussion on how to improve conflict management in their organization was much more specific and squarely on target.”

Dr. Kilmann added this caution: “While it’s often worthwhile to modify the TKI instructions to suit a specific situation, no one should ever change the 30 A/B items on the assessment. Each A/B pair was purposely designed to be equal in what is called ‘social desirability,’ so a person can’t choose either the A or B part of any item to look good to himself or others. The TKI has withstood the test of time, I believe, because it provides an accurate measure of conflict-handling behavior with minimal distortions. But now we can be even more accurate, since we won’t be diluting the TKI results by using generalized instructions when we wish to learn about a very specific situation. To me, such a switch in instructions represents a breakthrough for using this assessment even more effectively!”

In its eight-hour online course, Advanced Training in Conflict Management, Kilmann Diagnostics provides participants with numerous guidelines on how to revise the standard TKI instructions to best suit different situations.

An added bonus in this recorded course is learning how to make use of two TKI assessments, each with different instructions: (1) “INSIDE this organization...” and (2) “OUTSIDE this organization....” According to Dr. Kilmann, the results from having group members take these two different TKI assessments will highlight the impact of corporate culture, the reward system, and leadership behavior on members’ relative use of the five conflict-handling modes. Such a dual TKI comparison often reveals a high avoiding tendency inside the organization—driven by self-protection, mistrust, and fear—which is non-existent outside the organization. If group members take only one TKI assessment with the standard instructions, this highly significant finding won’t be uncovered, so no corrective action can be taken to remedy the situation.

Dr. Kilmann wanted to reinforce one last point: “In those cases when respondents are interested in learning about their conflict-handling behavior across a wide variety of situations, that’s when it’s best to use the original TKI instructions without any modifications.”

The TKI assessment is available either in its ONLINE version from Kilmann Diagnostics (Newport Coast, CA) or in its PAPER version from CPP, Inc. (Mountain View, CA).


Since 2009, the mission of Kilmann Diagnostics is to resolve conflict throughout the world by providing online courses with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI) and other assessment tools. KD is the exclusive provider of online training for the TKI—worldwide. Visit: Kilmann Diagnostics.

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