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From Conflict to Opportunity 1 – why does conflict occur and why it’s important to understand this

This is a series of articles about managing conflict, specifically in partnerships and alliances, but the principles apply to any team or project situation. There are three parts: The first talks about how we may need to think through and understand that there are many reasons why you may be in conflict – and if you second guess wrongly, you can end up chasing the wrong way.


A 3-part series helping you to build collaboration into complex teams and partnerships


Part 1 – Why does it happen?

Conflict in business is a daily occurrence.
We’re not short of choice for examples and illustrations. One example relevant to the focus of this article is in CRO outsourcing. Sponsors constantly get irritated that despite apparently clear contracts, in their view CRO teams don’t do what they’ve agreed to. Another is common in Alliances: decisions are made suddenly by one partner with no apparent justification, or warning. There are many more, internally as well as across partnerships.

Managing these conflicts may irritate you, frighten you, or you might relish it! But almost certainly, you could manage it better.
‘Why does it happen?’ might seem an unnecessary question. But it’s worth thinking it through for at least two reasons. One: as we’ll see in the second article, it is difficult, when something irritating is happening, to get into the right mindset to resolve it. Two: The real reasons your counterparts are unhappy may not be immediately obvious. You may well jump to assumptions, sometimes based on your own annoyance and possible prejudices. Even if you do not, you may have to confront functional colleagues who take an combative stand, and attempt instead to lead them to a win-win approach.

The first thing that might be a fundamental cause of conflict is a Hidden Agenda. Just because a relationship started out feeling entirely collaborative, people will always be thinking about what’s in it for them. Even in the most open of negotiations, the most illusory phrase is ‘let us put all our cards on the table’. They very rarely are. The true purpose of an initiative may be concealed. Or in an apparently trusting relationship, work is going on behind the scenes to replace you with a cheaper supplier.

Another more subtle, and much more common cause of conflict is that one party’s behaviour does not match the expectations of the other party. For example: A trap that anyone who is the sponsor, payer or manager of an initiative can fall into, is micro-management. People may expect to be free to use their expertise and make decisions appropriately and at some point find out that they are not. The junior player in this situation may not complain openly, but at some point it is sure to surface in some form. Usually manifested as a drop in motivation and responsiveness.
Ask ten people about how Communication should be managed, and you will get ten different views. But there is probably one thing that was always, still is, and probably will remain a common source of conflict: not informing people about something important, in enough time to do something about it.

A large part of any eruption of conflict may just be stress and overwork. It may be that there is complete agreement about what must be done and how. It’s just there’s a lot of it and it takes a lot of hours every day. People get tired, but often have no option to slacken off. Understandably they get tetchy.

Frequently ignored by corporations is that apparently inexplicable responses, or communication style of another party may be entirely natural to their (different) culture. For example, you may be free and easy with your opinions, what you agree with and don’t, not afraid to air dissenting views on a conference call. At the other end, they may be much more reserved, inclined to check everything upwards before expressing their views. Finding out what they think takes a lot more time (and of course annoys you!)

We have different views about what is value for money and how long things should take. The classic example of this is the common assumption that in our digital age, IT functionality should be made available quickly, easily (and therefore cheaply!)

Finally, we must not overlook simple misunderstandings and errors. Missing one person off of a distribution list. Sending the wrong date for a meeting. And so on. Maddening, but it remains a daily irritation

Where now?
I’ve asked you to think through the possible reasons why another party’s responses, behaviours, work outputs, moods or communications are not be as expected. So far, you may guess, but you don’t yet know. The strategies you’ll need to use to resolve, or even just slightly improve the things we’ve described above, are different. So how do you navigate from here to there?
I’ll talk about it in the next part, ‘Dealing with Conflict’. Coming soon!

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Written by John Faulkes