US employees spend 3 ½ hours per week resolving workplace conflict costing $358B in lost productivity. When I share this stat, clients often smirk and say, “only 3 1/2 hours?” The top reasons for conflict include mismatched priorities, miscommunication, and differing expectations regarding deadlines.

The studies rarely call out a big culprit – conflict based on personality. In the vernacular of the Core Strengths assessment we use at Iron Coaching, it’s when my Red (or Green or Blue) leaks on your Blue (or Green or Red). Regardless of style, unintentional conflict occurs when we fail to acknowledge the power of our motives and how they bias our perceptions of others (and vice versa).

The good news is that we can reduce this type of conflict with awareness, commitment, and practice.

You may know the scenario. You’ve called a meeting with your team to discuss an important project. As one team member confidently presents her assessment of the situation and high-level plan of attack, another team member starts to ask questions. At first, the presenter answers succinctly, but when it’s clear that the other person still needs details, the presenter’s demeanor changes from polite to curt. Then, clearly irritated, she finishes and sits silently through the rest of the meeting.

Others present a few more ideas, but in the end, buy-in fails, and one member of the team leaves miffed. That’s not only unproductive. It’s counterproductive!

Relational conflict often occurs unintentionally.

Let’s look beneath the surface. Our presenter is motivated by getting things done, and she uses her persuasiveness, confidence, and risk-taking nature to accomplish her goals. On the other hand, her colleague is equally committed to achieving the goal but feels more comfortable considering facts, analyzing alternatives, and taking a measured decision-making approach. She questions our presenter to gain understanding with no intention of creating conflict. Too many questions push our presenter out of her comfort zone and away from her motive – and ZING, her brain unconsciously thinks THREAT, and conflict occurs.

How does one minimize or prevent unintentional conflict?

1. Recognize and own your conflict style. Our feeling that something is at risk is tied to our sense of purpose and deeply held motivations.  A trigger sets off a sequence of feelings, thoughts, and needs manifesting (in the simplest form) in behaviors that reflect three personas. The Commander takes charge and goes for the win. The Analyst takes a cautious stance and gathers data. The Peacekeeper focuses on harmony and people’s emotional needs.  Some people consistently favor one persona, while others may fluctuate between two or all three depending on the situation.

The more self-aware you are about your conflict style, the easier it is to self-regulate when triggered and stay focused on listening, learning, decision-making, and problem-solving. Taking 100% responsibility for this aspect of your personality plants you in reality and allows you to respond in stressful situations versus react.

2. Intelligently use your strengths. We tell clients that there is no such thing as a weakness – it’s an overutilized or unmanaged strength. Are you analytical – but sometimes overdo this by getting “too deep into the weeds”? Does your competitive nature often click into overdrive (i.e., always have to be right)? Are you so helpful that you do things for people versus equipping them to do for themselves?  Assessments provide language to describe your strengths, and the one we use identifies what you Overdo at work.

A more straightforward method is to list your strengths and accept that it has a darker twin people will experience.  Cautious will seem cool to others. Social will seem intrusive. Persuasive will seem abrasive.  Awareness and, most importantly, acceptance of this aspect of yourself is empowering.

3. Make adjustments. Armed with an awareness of your strengths and conflict style, identify patterns of behavior you may need to adjust to lessen the likelihood that unintentional conflict can take its toll.  The scenario I described might not have happened had our presenter acknowledged (internally) that questions weren’t a threat to her idea. By adjusting her perspective, she could answer the questions without feeling defensive or (even better) invite feedback along the way.

…in every interaction where there was conflict; we had an opportunity to escalate or de-escalate a situation

A client of mine earned his team’s praise for role modeling an enviable calm and presence in the face of tremendous workplace and personal challenges.  His secret? Before his corporate career, he worked in the Federal corrections system as a guard. He relayed a life lesson he learned there I continue to remember and pass on,  “…in every interaction where there was conflict; we had an opportunity to escalate or de-escalate a situation. ”

Though our work choices don’t typically result in bodily injury or riot, the high cost of unintentional conflict is sapping focus, hindering creativity, and disconnecting employees and teams. Equip yourself and your teams with self-knowledge that fuels better choices and helps us direct energy towards productive and purposeful ends.