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How Small Business Owners Should Approach Conflict



“Is it a ‘people’ problem or a process problem?”

This is the question my manager asked me on one of my first consulting gigs as a CPA, almost 15 years ago. I was spending several hours a week on-site at a small manufacturing client. During a debriefing session back at the office, I tried to describe for my manager the almost unbearable tension I was witnessing between the sales and production departments.

With the help of a few probing questions, my supervisor helped me suss out that it was a bit of both problems. The sales team needed to hit its year-end targets and was uncomfortably behind. The team had obtained an authorization from management to steeply discount the company’s products to create incentive for deal closings, and a green light to promise faster shipping dates. Production was rightfully worried about both the pressure to manufacture profitably and to make looming tight deadlines.

Existing personality differences flared as the two departments wrestled with conflicting objectives. In reality, the problems were the extended fruit of management’s failure to update its product lines, and they didn’t arise overnight.

The framing question of people or process has stuck in my mind over the years. Now with my own consulting practice, I often run it through my head as I listen to a client express the biggest pain point driving his or her consulting need.

This tiny analysis tool is especially useful when thinking about conflict. As an entrepreneur, you may not love the idea of conflict, but you probably know it’s inevitable. Small-business owners deal with conflict daily, and it manifests in several forms, and between many different players — from employees to suppliers, customers, and other third parties.