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Developing Conflict Warning Systems

It is 14 April 1912, around 20 minutes before midnight. The Titanic is in the middle of her virgin voyage across the Atlantic. This ship, the most modern in the world, is considered unsinkable. However, after an iceberg is identified too late the crew tries to prevent a collision. A stream of frantic orders are called out as they try to veer the 269 meter ocean giant out of harm’s way. But the visible part of the iceberg is not the problem – the unseen mass below the surface is what they should be worried about. The end of the story is common knowledge: the Titanic’s hull gets perforated and the ship sinks with many people on board. To this day it is still remembered as one of the biggest international maritime catastrophes ever. What does this tragic event have to do with conflicts in the modern business world?

Conscious and Unconscious

Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist renowned as the father of psychoanalysis, observed his patients and recognised that only a part of human activity can be accounted for by our conscious minds. Contrary to the broad consensus at the time he believed that things like fears residing in our unconscious, repressed conflicts, traumatic experiences, drives and instincts influence human behaviour.

Using his iceberg theory he tried to explain the roots of conflicts – which generally do not take place on a rational but an emotional level. What is more, they get worse when they are not identified or resolved. In the worst cases the conflicts become intractable such that, in the business world, some employees end up leaving the company.

What is the Conflict Really About?

Does your company have parking spots? Then you probably are familiar with the problems associated with a limited number of them. When a new spot becomes available you have the unenviable task of assigning it to a new co-worker. Two staff members make the short-list. Considering you are a cooperative leader you leave it up to them to decide who should get the spot. Should be easy enough. All they need to do is make a decision and inform you of it, right?

But after a while you notice that things are getting tense between the two of them. Okay, you think to yourself, just talk to them and try find a solution together. You’re used to doing things like that as a leader. After some deliberation you make a decision. Great! Conflict resolved, the parking spot has a new owner and everything is fine.
Or is it?
Later on you realise that relations between the two employees remain strained. Their behaviour has even soured towards you. One of them even avoids you around the office now. Let’s consider the iceberg again. Approximately 20% of the iceberg can be seen above the surface, which means 80% is submerged. On a rational level a solution was found. But perhaps the parking spot situation was just a symptom of deeper fissures in the company.

Imagine the overlooked co-worker has a relatively laid back personality. He doesn’t like to be the centre of attention. He is a quiet and conscientious employee. When he has problems he finds it very difficult to vocalise them – both to colleagues and supervisors. He has been overlooked for promotions in his past. His co-workers appreciate his willingness to help and maybe even exploit him a little because of it. His ideas are often stolen by employees who want to advance their own careers. One of the many to do so was the employee who got the parking spot. She is very good at elbowing her way to the top. And yes, one of the decisions lamented by the quiet employee was the allocation of the infamous parking spot. How do you think the co-worker feels after the decision? And let’s ponder the question again: “What is the actual conflict here and how will it be resolved?” The conflict is much deeper than it would appear and is simply not visible.

Rational and Emotional Components to Conflicts

Rational and Emotional Components to Conflicts

The Right Approach with Conflicts

What does this insight mean for future conflicts in the team or generally with people in our lives? Because, after all, do you think things are any different in our private lives? Whenever conflicts arise it makes sense to take the time to really think about the conflict. Try to broaden your perspective on it. What is the rational component of the conflict (parking spots or the lack thereof)? What is the emotional component? The co-worker could be experiencing thoughts like, “I want to implement my will, I deserve it, I always get overlooked, my boss doesn’t like me, I am never heard, I have power over others” etc.

There are many emotions that remain largely unidentified if we do not take time to consider them. It is important to think about who is involved in the conflict. This list can extend beyond the people you can see, it can include other colleagues, friends and spouses. Even a system like a team or an entire company can contribute to a conflict due to its structure and the framework in operation.

How do we identify the roots of a conflict? Often it is helpful to have intense discussions with the stakeholders (either together or separately). Sometimes other conversations are also necessary. Then it becomes important to raise the right questions in order to uncover the hidden emotions. Remember also to question your own position in the situation so as to be aware of your own emotions. Sometimes it can be helpful to send in a third party as a neutral “detective”. This part can be unpleasant and you may be tempted to skip it. But if you do you could end up limiting the possibility of the resolution.

The Benefit to the Company

Why would such thorough deliberation benefit the company? Through it we can learn more about our emotions and can disentangle the conscious and unconscious components. We build a new mode of interaction and restructure the trust relationships in the company. We are able to recognise nascent conflicts early on because our awareness of triggers becomes heightened. As a result they are prevented from becoming deep-seated.

What effect does conflict have on a company? It can lead to bullying, increased absenteeism rates or even resignations and litigation. There can be consequences outside the company. If morale becomes bad in a company and this mood begins to spread, customers will eventually begin to notice, causing them to start looking around for new partners. The financial consequences are often substantial. The effects are the same in private affairs.


It is always worth it to unearth the roots of a conflict. Consider the submerged part of an iceberg. With a little bit of thought you could stop it from being the cause of your sinking. Speak to the stakeholders before making a decision. Try to figure out what is motivating the stakeholders. Listen to their arguments. “Quiet” co-workers might say things like: “I suppose your decision is totally understandable.” But watch out, did you notice the phrase “I suppose”? It signals that your staff member doesn’t really accept the decision and the situation could get worse. These kinds of deceptive statements like “I guess”, “I suppose” and “If that’s what everyone wants I’ll go along with it” speak volumes about hidden components to their comments. Keep probing if you notice a comment like that because it indicates strong emotions from the depths of the subconscious mind.

In the parking spot example you could ask: “What would your ideal solution look like?” That allows everyone to hear each other’s concerns and to gain an understanding of them. Dive down with your co-workers and take a look at the iceberg. In this way you will develop an early warning system in your conflict management.

Look for the roots of the conflicts by probing and considering all parties concerned. And if you as the leader are forced to make the decision yourself then this process gives you a new understanding of the roots. In so doing you could find yourself arriving at completely different conclusions. You will gain the ability to understand your co-workers and they will understand you better in turn when the time comes to communicate your decision.


Volker Helweg is a business school graduate, certified management trainer and coach. He has been working as a freelance trainer, conflict manager, keynote speaker and hypnotist for 18 years.

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