September 19, 2002

October 17, 2002

November 21, 2002

Failed expectations lead to conflict

Joanna Exeter developed and patented a new process for growing hot-house flowers based on her research as a biochemist. Her process cut the cost of cultivation by nearly a third and would give any grower a great economic opportunity.

FloraDesigns was a regional grower and shipper of hot-house flowers, selling to floral supply houses, distributors and larger retail accounts. Joanna met the owner and CEO of FloraDesigns, Megan Smith, at a national trade show. Over the course of the conference, Joanna and Megan saw the advantages of a new venture using Joanna's technology and Megan's business acumen and financial resources.

By the end of the conference, Joanna and Megan decided to work together to exploit Joanna's work. Within a month, Joanna had relocated to FloraDesigns and had granted the company an exclusive license to use her patent.

Over the next two years, Joanna and Megan work long hours to market the process to other growers and to build up a large customer base. Unfortunately, the bloom of the relationship passed quickly. Megan was a successful, focused, task-oriented business woman who kept a firm hand on financial and marketing matters. Joanna, as a scientist and creator, chafed under Megan's discipline. Eventually, their relationship completely broke down. Joanna filed a lawsuit to terminate the licensing agreement and Megan counter sued for a number of claims, including breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the licensing agreement. The litigation became hostile.

Eventually, the parties came to mediation.

During the early stages of the mediation process, the mediator invited Joanna and Megan to share how they had each experienced the conflict. He asked them to speak from both their hearts and their minds.

Joanna began by expressing her frustration and intense distrust of Megan. Joanna had not expected that Megan would be so dictatorial and controlling. Joanna experienced Megan's behavior as condescending, disrespectful and autocratic. Joanna revealed that she expected a collegial, collaborative relationship with deliberative, democratic decision making, much as she had experienced in her academic career. Joanna experienced the opposite while working with Megan. Joanna interpreted Megan's behavior as purposefully hurtful. Joanna felt that her trust in Megan had been betrayed.

When Megan's turn came, she expressed in nearly identical words her frustration with and distrust of Megan. Megan experienced the world of business as tough and competitive, requiring decisive, task-oriented, goal-directed leadership. Megan experienced Joanna's behavior as impractical, un-businesslike and inefficient. Megan interpreted Joanna's behavior as lazy and uncaring. Megan felt that she was carrying the full brunt of financial responsibility without help on even the simplest business details from Joanna.

When Megan finished, the mediator asked both women to reflect on the expectations they had brought to the relationship. Each described her hopes and expectations. The mediator then asked if the expectations had ever been shared between Megan and Joanna. They thought about that for a moment and Megan said, "No, I just assumed because Joanna was so bright, successful and committed that she would clearly understand how to develop a business."

Joanna concurred that she had assumed a collegial, collaborative relationship based on Megan's friendliness. That was the turning point of the mediation. Both women realized that their unstated expectations had become the source of their frustration with one another. Instead of talking about their expectations, they each interpreted the other's behavior as intentionally malicious. The mediation resulted in a new type of relationship between Megan and Joanna that turned out to be highly satisfactory for each.

Failed expectations are a common cause of conflicts in business relationships. Rarely, relationships are intentionally sabotaged. Far more frequently, expectations are not expressed, yet are assumed to be shared. When behaviors become inconsistent with expectations, people infer malice or misfeasance. This inference of bad faith is then justified and rationalized by observing further nonconforming behavior and the conflict cycle is initiated.

If you find yourself frustrated with your partners or colleagues, you need to ask if you have clearly communicated your expectations and have clearly understood the expectations of others. Overcoming the natural fear of surfacing a conflict that has been simmering for some time takes some courage. However, the sooner honest dialogue can occur, the sooner the conflict can be resolved. If you are uncomfortable engaging the dialogue yourself, bring in a mediator. Better that you mediate early and possibly avoid litigation than mediate later in the throes of a lawsuit.

Noll is an attorney, law professor and a member of the conflict management firm Maloney-Noll, whose Web site is He can be reached at

September 19, 2002

October 17, 2002

November 21, 2002