Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator with the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

by Ralph H. Kilmann


Appreciating and managing differences go hand-in-hand with understanding and improving many aspects of human behavior. The MBTI reveals the fundamental differences among people while the TKI provides the fundamental ways of resolving those differences. Using these two tools together, therefore, is both natural and beneficial.


In research studies on psychological types, it is apparent that the four basic types (ST, NT, SF, and NF) bring out the key differences among worldviews, hidden assumptions, ideal organizations, notions of productivity and success, preferences for organizational structure, types of organizational structures, reactions to learning experiences, steps in problem management, alternative strategic plans, radically different reward systems, and so forth. Indeed, any time a diverse group of students or managers are assigned into the four type groups, no matter what the topic, the outcome is the same: (1) The ST group typically focuses on the short-term, detailed, technical aspects of the problem. (2) The NT group usually focuses on the long-term, global, technical aspects. (3) The SF group naturally focuses on the short-term, unique, personal aspects of the problem. (4) The NF group tends to focus on the long-term, general, human aspects. Using these four groups will thus reveal four different views on virtually any complex topic, task, or problem.


In research studies on conflict-handling modes, it is apparent that the five modes (competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating) pinpoint the unseen opportunities for resolving the underlying differences among people. Whenever the TKI is administered and the results are interpreted, people learn about the key attributes of a conflict situation: (1) Is the conflict situation simple (one dimensional) or complex (multi-dimensional)? (2) Is there sufficient trust between the two people, so they’ll share their true needs and concerns? (3) Does the culture of the situation encourage people to share their true needs and concerns? (4) Do people have the skills to communicate effectively with one another? (5) How much time do you have (or will you take) to resolve your differences? (6) How important is the topic to you versus the other person? (7) How important is your relationship? (8) Do you want that relationship to last?

Essentially, how these eight questions are answered in each occasion largely determines how and when each mode can enhance the management of conflict. And these same questions also suggest what additional training and development (regarding skills for listening, communicating, and managing problems) and corresponding organizational changes (regarding cultural norms and the reward system) will enable members to get more of their needs met—whatever their differences in style and substance.

Given this natural blend of illuminating and managing differences in the workplace, here are several uses of the MBTI and the TKI that will satisfy member needs far beyond what would be the case by only using one of the two instruments, but not both.


How well an organization’s strategic mission has been translated into projects, jobs, and priorities has a fundamental impact on the conflicts that develop in the workplace. Use the four type groups (with a diverse mix of employees) to highlight different interpretations of the organization’s strategic mission and how it should be translated into day-to-day behavior on the job.

Eyes will open wide when each type group (ST, NT, SF, NF) presents its view of the strategic mission and what it means on a daily basis—which will be vastly different from the other type groups’ presentations: No wonder there’ve been so many recurring arguments on what are the top priorities and how, therefore, employees should spend their valuable time and effort. With the help of the four type groups (also known as the MBTI groups), the underlying differences in the workplace will be illuminated for all to see. (Note: Be sure to have enough people in each type group, so the four very different perspectives will be fully discussed and persuasively presented.)

After every member in each type group has taken the TKI and knows his profile of conflict-handling modes, each group decides which two of its members, as a package, have combined TKI Profiles that represent a medium score (the middle 50%) 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 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 five 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 modes—based on the key attributes of the situation that indicate when each mode is likely to be most effective. Once all the differences have been sorted into the five modes, the synthesis group addresses each issue using the agreed-on 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.

Assuming the appropriate steps have been taken beforehand to develop a trusting culture, effective communication skills, and a deep appreciation of differences (via the MBTI) and how they can be resolved (via the TKI), this unique process will ultimately enable the most important work in the organization to get done on time—and thus achieve the organization’s strategic mission.

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In our dynamic, global economy, it’s essential to stay in tune with customer and client needs and how they are incessantly changing. As a result, organizations must modify existing products and services (or create altogether new products and services) faster and better than other organizations. Because this responding-to-customer-needs problem dramatically affects the long-term survival and success of any enterprise, it’s essential to first illuminate different perspectives before successfully modifying (or creating new) products and services for the future.

Once again, the best way to surface the fundamental differences in customer/client needs is by making use of the four type groups. Assemble about ten to twelve employees (including, if possible, additional clients and customers) and sort them into their ST, NT, SF, and NF group. If any type group has only a few members, recruit additional employees of that type.

After the four type groups have presented their viewpoints, form a synthesis group, consisting of two members from each of the four type groups. Based on each person’s knowledge of their TKI Profile and the key attributes of a situation, the synthesis group uses the appropriate conflict modes to resolve its differences as best as possible.

Naturally, it’s vital that all members involved in the type groups (and the synthesis group) have already learned the skills for effective communication, listening, and managing an effective group process—and that the cultural norms and reward system in the organization continually promote trust and an open discussion of differences. If not, it may be time to confront the systemic barriers that prevent members from revealing and resolving their conflicts.


After organizational members have experienced a few applications of the MBTI and TKI groups for one problem situation or another, it often becomes apparent that the organization itself is making it difficult for its members to fully contribute their talent. In most cases, the two major culprits are the informal and formal reward systems in the organization, which inadvertently steer members toward self-protection and away from self-expression.

The informal reward system includes all the subtle and not-so-subtle messages about “how things are done around here,” which evolve from the behavior of fellow employees, bosses, and the lessons in history (stories about what happened to employees in the past when they openly expressed themselves in group meetings). The formal reward system is the annual or semi-annual review of each member’s performance, which often includes an assessment of how well that member contributed to group projects (both within her department and with members from other areas in the organization). Importantly, these performance appraisals affect not only salary changes and bonuses, but also promotion decisions and key assignments on work projects.

Bottom line: If the cultural norms and the reward system push people to self-protection (so they won’t be subject to informal criticism or negative performance reviews), it will be most difficult to realize the full potential of the four MBTI groups, the TKI group, and any other problem resolution process that requires self-expression—without fear of reprisals.

While it certainly can be challenging for members to talk about their cultural norms and reward systems in an environment that fosters self-protection, the best chance is to form the four type groups among peers without their immediate boss present. If the facilitator of that process can encourage members to take a chance and share their true concerns and perspectives with one another, the four type groups will likely reveal the various barriers to success that continue to stymie their best efforts. In essence, each ST, NT, ST, and NF group presents its view of what is preventing the organization from capitalizing on the MBTI/TKI group process. (Note: If these same people have been involved in translating the strategic mission into work priorities and developing new products and services, as noted above, the members will probably share their prior frustrations with one another).

Once each type group has presented its very different perspective on barriers to success, a synthesis group is formed. Using the appropriate conflict mode, the synthesis group develops a summary of the organization’s barriers to success. Indeed, this “diagnosis” usually declares that cultural norms and reward practices must be changed in order to motivate employees to identify and solve their most pressing problems.

Moreover, the synthesis group often recommends that members should receive advanced training in (1) using the MBTI and the TKI for better appreciating and managing differences; (2) listening and communicating in more supportive and creative ways; (3) learning to define and solve complex problems; and (4) becoming more aware of how formal systems and work processes influence whether people use all their passion, talent, and experience on the job—or save their efforts for some other pursuit.

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Besides the common problems that seem to plague most organizations today (translating the strategic mission into work priorities, developing new products and services, and revealing and resolving barriers to success), there are a slew of unique problems that organizations must address—depending on their particular circumstance, history, and industry. Not surprisingly, the four type groups can again be used to identify and resolve their unique problems.

In essence, every member of an organization (regardless of organizational level or functional area) can be viewed 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.

For this special application of the MBTI and the TKI, use each type group to (1) sense the most important problems—the symptoms—they experience in the organization; (2) define the root cause of these symptoms; (3) decide how the problem should be resolved (given the group’s definition of the problem); (4) describe how the solution should be implemented (given the culture and dynamics in their organization); and (5) suggest what signs, signals, or outcomes would indicate that the original problem is no longer an issue. Even though all members of the type groups are living in the same organization, they will present radically different definitions and solutions to their unique problems, how to implement change, and so forth.

Once the synthesis group has used the various conflict modes to manage the pronounced differences among the four type groups, the organization will have a very comprehensive statement of what needs to be addressed sooner, rather than later, and how the members will know if their efforts have been successful (that is, evaluating the outcomes of problem management).


A minimum of two individuals can make use of the above principles. An ST who is challenged by a difficult problem can seek out his exact opposite, an NF, and together they can expand their understanding of a complex problem. Similarly, an NT can seek out and have a thorough discussion with her complete opposite, an SF. However, it will still be important for both persons to engage in active listening and supportive communication, otherwise little will be gained from such a dialogue of complete opposites. Once the underlying differences have been uncovered, however, the two people can use one or more conflict modes to achieve a workable resolution for the organization.

As might be expected, this problem management process among two opposite personality types, coupled with the appropriate use of different conflict modes, will surely result in a more beneficial outcome than seeking out other similarly minded people who habitually use only one or two conflict modes. Nevertheless, the surest way of seeing and then managing the big picture from many different perspectives is to make effective use of four MBTI groups and one TKI group for the most important and complex problems that affect the welfare of many people.

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