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Unrecognized conflicts of interest – Self-awareness with the 3-world-model

We all know that conflicts of interest can lead to problems. We also know that they do not only arise in our interactions with other people but also within ourselves. “My boss would love to have me do lots of unpaid overtime but my family would like me to be home for dinner every night,” would be a typical example. Yet even though we are aware of the omnipresence of conflicts of interest, when they rear their heads in the business world they still manage to stay hidden from our conscious minds. We are confused when they happen, we know something is going wrong, but it is difficult to articulate exactly what. Bernd Schmid’s 3 world model lifts the veil.

Familiar territory: conflicts of interest between bosses and employees

Andreas gets along well with his boss, Bettina. They share a love for distant countries and sometimes they even go out for a beer and chat for hours about travelling the world. But when he asks Bettina if he could have four extra weeks of unpaid vacation, she rejects the idea off hand. “Unfortunately it is not possible this year. Our team is way too small.” Andreas is furious and hurt. He expected much more understanding from Bettina.

No matter who you sympathize with in this story it is clear that Andreas is directing his appeal at Bettina, the friend. She is responding as a boss however, someone who is ultimately responsible for results.

Conflicts of interest or not?

Below are two scenarios in which something goes wrong but which don’t necessarily read as conflicts of interest at first glance.

Case 1: Christa works hard on the development of the new integrated user interface project. She spends great amounts of energy on making her comprehensive knowledge from the world of HR available to the team for a successful project. When the system is almost done it is presented at a roadshow, and at the annual HR team day—the response is heated. The personnel department feels bulldozed because now they have to change the way they communicate with their colleagues. Christa is offended because she has been blamed.

Case 2: Daniel is a software developer at an IT consulting company. In his present position he is not only responsible for programming the user interface, he is also leading the consulting team for the first time, and as such he is in the unfamiliar position of having to represent the company. The project is going well. The future users are excited about the usability, especially after he spent three extra weeks working on the project—which he cleared with his project manager, Franz. So Daniel is flabbergasted when Franz refuses to approve the agreed upon monthly fee at the end of the month. Reason: “I still have not received the agreed upon user acceptance test, which was supposed to be done by the middle of the month.”

Selfawareness with the 3 world model

Selfawareness with the 3 world model

The 3 world personality model

“I already have … and this is the thanks I get!” When statements like those pop up there is a strong probability that a conflict of interest is at play. This is obvious in the example between the employee and the boss, Andreas and Bettina, but what about the other two cases?

Bernd Schmid, the psychologist, added another category to his 3 world model by dividing the business role into a “professional world” and an “organizational world”. In this principle the ordinary employee assumes roles in three worlds: a private, professional and organizational one. The professional world contains technical categories, e.g. programmer and quality assurance staff. The organizational world consists of hierarchical functions such as team leader, ambassador and contractual partner.

If we consider our two examples and their corresponding conflicts of interest again we see that Christa performed her function in a professional capacity in the area of development. However she failed to acknowledge her role as “representative of the HR department”. David, on the other hand, did a great job in his role as a programmer, while neglecting his organizational role in the upholding of his end of the contractual agreement. Franz does not want any flak from the controlling or revision departments so he goes to great lengths to compare actual with permitted expenditures, even if that causes consternation in the professional world.

How does this expanded view help us understand the inner conflicts of interest?

We can view the insights from the 3 world model as tools to help us become aware of our different roles and to use this knowledge in everyday life.

Step 1: Become aware of your roles

In the context of your self-management, figure out which roles need to be considered in every new task, and determine what expectations are attached to them. Ask explicit questions about the different roles in the professional and organizational worlds.

Step 2: Perform your role, or break with expectations

Have you read your task descriptions? Is a technical role described alongside your organizational one? Then perform these tasks with the same care as you would devote to your professional roles. Bear in mind, you can protest the assignment of certain tasks, especially if you are confronted with unrealistic expectations.

Step 3: Talk about other people’s roles

Even though every individual is responsible for his/her own roles, it can be very helpful for the cohesion in the team if you are also aware are of other colleague’s roles and responsibilities. Only then can you support them in those roles. If your colleague is unaware of a role and he makes a mistake as a result, that could be bad for you too. To cite our examples again, if the project management had not been able to depend on particular passages in the project handbook, and Christa had explicitly made everyone aware of her role as an ambassador in her area, then all of the quibbles with the personnel department could have been avoided. Franz should have made Daniel, the person who assigned the task in the first place, aware of the fact that delaying results will have consequences in the payment process. They might have been able to find a mutually beneficial solution.


Get into the habit of paying attention to your various roles when you get a new tasks. Think about your private world, your professional world and your organizational world. What responsibilities are being given to you, and in which function? Which responsibilities are you prepared to take? Which conflicts are predictable? How can you solve these conflicts? Good luck!



Elisabeth Wagner specializes in project marketing and change management. She has participated in a large number of transitions, some of which with Dax listed companies. She is a leader in the spheres of internal communication and has worked as an external consultant for the privatization of west German governmental departments and other organisations. Wagner writes articles for PM and IT in addition to creating PR texts. She works as a consultant to help improve her clients’ positioning in the market. She began her career as an author for media outlets like Süddeutsche Zeitung, DIE ZEIT and Campus Verlag.

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