Advance Updates

Look Deeper When Managing Conflict

This article and its related blog series is about managing unintentional conflict in business, and the dramatic benefits of doing so. But why unintentional conflict? It turns out that most conflict in business is unintentional. Yes, there are those who intentionally pick fights, damage the reputations of others, stir up controversy, and otherwise operate in a self-serving manner at the expense of others. However, in our businesses, if you take away all of that intentional conflict you are still left with a majority of the conflict.

How can that be? Most folks in business seem like decent people. If you get rid of the “bad eggs” how could there still be that much conflict? The truth is that most businesses and those of us in them create unintentional conflict – some more than others. A certain amount of this is inevitable. After all, we are not perfect. However, as I will discuss in this article, there is much that can be done to see and avoid creating unintentional conflict.

What is Unintentional Conflict in Business?

While the genesis of unintentional conflict is often obscured, the costly disruption and dysfunction that results from it are usually quite visible. Let me offer a definition.

Unintentional Conflict

Given this definition, and the reality of the matter, unintentional conflict is not just something that happens between people. It occurs at the organizational, operational, and individual (people) levels in our businesses. To clarify this point, here is an example of each. My focus in this article is to bring unintentional conflict to light. I will focus the associated blog series on the solutions.

At the Individual Level

Jane is meeting with her new client, Sandy, to make some recommendations for how to address some pressing problems on their project. Jane loves to engage in small talk and storytelling with people, including clients, to buildmanaging unintentional conflict in business relationships. Sandy is a down-to-business executive who prefers to “cut to the chase” on things. Unaware of this, Jane continues to tell stories while Sandy becomes increasingly impatient and angry.

Sandy is completely closed off by the time Jane gets to her recommendations. She cuts the meeting short. Shocked and surprised, Jane thinks Sandy is being unfair and rude. Also upset, Sandy thinks Jane doesn’t respect her time. The pressing issues remain unresolved, and their detrimental effect on the project is stalling progress each day.

The unintentional conflict between Jane and Sandy has hurt the project, which will ultimately cost the company money to recover, and increase its exposure to very costly negative consequences until the problems are resolved.

At the Operational Level

The Legal Department just implemented a new system and process for handling contracts in the company. As requests for new contracts come in from the business units they form a pool of time-sensitive internal work orders. Attorneys get assigned to the work orders but paralegals do not. Instead, the system and process require that paralegals monitor the new requests and sign up for the work orders they choose from the pool.

Two months after the system was implemented morale among the paralegals has hit rock bottom as infighting among them reaches a feverous pitch. Some complain that they are doing much more work than others who aren’t taking on as many contracts, or tend to “cherry pick” the easy ones. Others complain that paralegals who have expertise in certain areas are not taking on the contracts that require that expertise, while others who are “stuck with them” are floundering managing unintentional conflict in businesswithout the proper knowledge. The backlog of unprocessed contracts has doubled, and the company is losing deals as a result.

In this case, the unintentional conflict caused by the new process and system, which was intended to speed up the processing of contracts, has created divisive conflict among the paralegals, damaged working relationships, slowed operations, and negatively impacted the company’s revenue and ability to do business.

At the Organizational Level

A healthcare IT company has dozens of ongoing projects to customize and implement its software at client hospitals. The resulting systems provide tracking and automation across all the major services in hospitals (e.g., radiology, pharmacy, etc.). Therefore, the project implementation teams must include an array of people with all of the needed knowledge and skillsets.

The people with the skills needed by the projects are hired into departments that mirror the major service areas in hospitals. These people generally take their direction from, and get paid out of, the departments. Project managers assigned to lead new implementation projects must ask the departments to assign resources to their projects. Sometimes they get the talent they need when they need it, but often they don’t. All of the Project Managers are fighting over the same limited resources.

The Department Managers are doing the best they can to satisfy the needs of all the projects. Their best people are in high demand and assigned to more projects than they can handle effectively. Nevertheless, project teams are far from satisfied. They suffer when departments move staff in and out of projects without consulting them or providing sufficient lead time to recover. Without adequate team resources, Project Managers unsuccessfully fight to prevent schedule slips, and find themselves trying to explain these problems to angry clients while powerless to resolve the real issues. To make matters worse, the Project Managers have little control over the people on their teams, who belong to and take their direction from their departments, even on matters related to the projects. Conflict is everywhere.

The unintentional conflict was caused by a hierarchical company structure that was poorly aligned to a project environment. As a result, project performance is poor, clients are moving to other competitors, and the company is losing revenue and market share. The future of the company is uncertain.

The Root Causes of Unintentional Conflict

Each of the examples above paints a gloomy picture of the damage caused by unintentional conflict in the business world today. To address these problems we must first recognize where they come from. Of course, there are many factors at play here. However, one common denominator is a LACK OF AWARENESS. To explain this, let’s revisit the examples above.

At the individual level, Jane was not aware of Sandy’s preference to cut to the chase on things and to “get ‘er done.” Had Jane been aware of that and adjusted her meeting approach accordingly, she would have avoided the conflict that ended the meeting early.

managing unintentional conflict in businessAt the operational level, those who designed the contract process and system were unaware of the conflict they would cause by allowing/forcing paralegals to choose work vs. intelligently assigning them work. It seemed to make sense at the time!
At the organizational level, a lack of awareness and attention around how structure affects operations, how the dysfunctional operation affects people, and how all of that impacts project and company performance, led to a circumstance that risks the viability of the company.

Why Aren’t We Taking Action?

With all of the damage and inefficiency caused by unintentional conflict, why aren’t we working harder at preventing conflict? Is it because this awareness has not entered the general consciousness of the business world? Yes. That is why I am writing this article. Is it because we aren’t giving our people enough of the knowledge and tools they need to take action? Yes. Check out the blogs for a start on that. But the biggest reason of all is the thing that reinforces our not taking action.

Conflict Management

Yikes! How often have you seen situations at work when things are going wrong, and when you look around for who is responsible, you can’tmanaging unintentional conflict in business find anyone! It’s not that people aren’t responsible. It’s that they aren’t aware and haven’t yet taken on the responsibility of avoiding unintentional conflict. In the example above, did Jane take responsibility? Not at all. She wasn’t any more aware than those who designed the process, system, and organization in our other examples.

But how does being unaware perpetuate the creation of unintentional conflict and keep us from doing something about it? The answer is that being unaware serves as a “get out of jail free card” when things go wrong. It’s not that I believe in harsh punishment every time something goes wrong – quite the contrary. But this is a useful (perhaps tongue in cheek) metaphor for explaining this phenomenon.

You may hear people in Jane’s situation say something like, “Sandy is a rude control freak.” And that story seems to make sense. No jail for Jane. The people who designed the legal process and system may say, “Those paralegals are prima donnas and just can’t get along.” Again, that seems to make sense. No jail time for them. And finally, if you could find the people who “designed” the organizational structure, they would likely attribute the serious company performance issues on the people working within the structure. They don’t even get probation!

Some Conclusions

I hope you are starting to get a sense for a few things:

  • Unintentional conflict in business is absolutely prevalent. It happens every day.
  • The general consciousness of the business world is not very aware of unintentional conflict and how it works.
  • There is a strong motivating factor reinforcing this lack of awareness. Not being aware keeps us from having to take responsibility for many of the things we do.

Why Should We Take Action?

You may be asking yourself why you as an individual, and your business collectively, would want to “become aware” and practice not creating unintentional conflict when it means you have to give up your get out of jail free card. The short answer is that you will be much more successful in the long run if you learn to apply one of the most powerful conflict resolution techniques – avoid creating unintentional conflict. The get out of jail card will pale in comparison to what you can accomplish. In addition, as companies become more aware of the gigantic damage and inefficiency caused by unintentional conflict, the smarter and more courageous ones will begin to realize there is a huge competitive and financial advantage that will derive from tackling this issue.

How Do We Solve These Problems?

Again, I will focus my blog articles on how to solve these problems. However, by way of introduction, I want to provide a general answer here. In my last Advance Update I introduced the concept of “Shared Space.” For us as individuals, sharing space with an individual or group is about focusing on the bigger picture and the common good you can create together, not just on your own agendas. This concept and approach applies equally at the operational and organizational levels. It turns out that if you want to avoid creating unintentional conflict, learn how to create shared space instead. When you are focused on the bigger picture and the common good, you become “aware” and learn to avoid creating unintentional conflict. I will get into this in more detail in my Advance Insight blogs:

What Can You Do Now?

Here are four things you can do to get started:
1. Check out our Skills Corner below for tips on learning to recognize unintentional conflict.

2. Read our blog posts for tips and approaches on how to avoid unintentional conflict at the individual, operational, and organizational levels. Join the conversation and share your own insights and experience!

3. Check out our interpersonal business skills workshops for a more in-depth learning experience. We designed all of our workshops at Advance Consulting to help you create shared space in business and avoid creating unintentional conflict.

4. Let us know how we can help. Contact us at or (831) 372-9444.

Skills Corner: Tips for Working Smart

Learning to Recognize Unintentional Conflict

Becoming aware of how we and others create unintentional conflict is the first step toward avoiding it. Here are some tips for recognizing it when it emerges. Remember in each of these examples that others probably will not have the same level of awareness of unintentional conflict as you do – so don’t expect the genesis of the conflict to be a conscious thing in others.

Observe Opposing Forces

Going back to the definition of unintentional conflict, there are always opposing forces that lead to poor outcomes. These can be between two people in a conversation, between groups, or among several opposing entities. At its core, conflict tends to be primal. You usually feel it before you understand it. Watch, and trust your instincts.

Watch for Misunderstandings

Poor communication often leads to the creation of unintentional conflict. When a misunderstanding happens in a conversation, yours or others’, raise your mental red flag. Conflict may be soon to follow.

Keep Your Emotions Out of It

Conflict is by its very nature an emotional thing. If you can learn to keep your own emotions out of the way you will more clearly see and understand the emotion in others. Follow the emotions to see the birth of a conflict.

Pay Attention to Damaging Competition

A little friendly competition is one thing. Going for the jugular vein is another. When you see people competing with anger and even vengeance, ask yourself, “Is unintentional conflict at the core of this?”

Identify Impossible Situations

When organizational and operational constraints seem to make it impossible for people or groups to succeed, don’t assume that the people responsible for those constraints were even thinking about unintentional conflict when they created them. Look for what they didn’t consider to understand the situation.

The best way to manage unintentional conflict is to avoid its creation in the first place. Once you are able to recognize it when it happens, raise the bar and learn to anticipate it before it happens. Then you can truly avoid it.

For help with your unintentional conflict, see our Conflict Management Services. Or, contact us for a no-obligation consultation.

Topics:Conflict ManagementOperational DevelopmentOrganizational ChangePerformance ImprovementStrategy and TransformationTransformational Change