Family Biz Conflict and how to handle it

FamBiz: Conflict is NOT an option

Miami: FFI at 30

I am currently in Miami, having just spent the past three days at the Family Firm Institute’s annual conference, during which attendees were continually reminded that the organisation is 30 years old.

I recall that CAFÉ, the Canadian Association of Family Enterprise recently celebrated its 30th anniversary as well.

Also early in its fourth decade is the Three Circle Model (Family, Business, Ownership), co-created by John Davis of Harvard. Davis received what amounts to a lifetime achievement award from FFI at the Gala dinner last night.

I finally got to meet him in person and shake his hand afterward, and gave him a belated thank you for not only allowing me to quote him in my book a couple years back, but mostly for replying to my emailed request for that permission within an hour, which surprised me at the time.

Having now met the man, I am no longer surprised.

 

Conflict comes standard

FFI conferencs are filled with so many people and learnings, and I was reviewing some of my notes last night trying to decide on this week’s blog topic. I settled on Conflict is NOT an option.

But I met yet another experienced practitioner this week who happily noted that he rejects 90% of potential client families who come to him in full blown conflict mode. He doesn’t need the aggravation and much prefers to work with families in preventative ways.

But the potential for conflict in family business situations remains ever present. If this sounds familiar, you may have read something similar in this space a few short weeks ago. (FamBiz Conflict: Resolve it, or manage it)

One breakout session that I attended was moderated by one of the authors of Deconstructing Conflict, mentioned in that blog. She repeated that in any situation where family and business overlap, conflict is NOT optional. It will always be there, by default.

 

Even if you don’t want it

Go back a few decades and think about buying a car. Do you want power windows and power steering? Air conditioning? There were lots of options available that you could choose to add or not, depending on your wants and needs, and your budget.

These days, (almost) all cars come with all of those former options, and many more, as standard features.

And so it is in a family business, conflict comes standard, and you cannot even opt out of it! Recall the days when you could have an unlisted phone number, but that cost extra, to not be listed in the “standard” phone book (these days, what’s a phone book? Ask Grandma…)

So assuming that you accept that conflict is built in, what now? My take is that you acknowledge it and always be on the alert for where disputes might flare up, and try to get out in front of them.

 

Carving a Safe Space: Art vs Science

A common term for mediators and group facilitators is the “safe space”. An independent and neutral outsider comes in and creates a safe space for all parties to be able to share their concerns, wants and needs.

One of the panelists in the conflict session artfully pointed out that his task is always to “hand carve” that safe space. You cannot buy such a space at IKEA and assemble it out of the box.

This carving analogy fits quite nicely with my own assertion, which I made both in that post a few weeks ago and during the FFI session; there is much more art involved in facilitating group process than there is science.

 

Who I Am vs What I Do

Organisations like FFI are great at helping this young industry develop and share the science part of family firms, but the art in mediating conflict often comes down more to the “who I am” of the neutral third party than the “what I do”.

The work that one needs to do to become an effective third party is very personal and “internally driven”.

For me, coaching courses, mediation and facilitation workshops, and even Bowen Family Systems Theory training, have all been integral to my becoming more than simply competent to do this work and conduct these group processes.

They say, “practice makes perfect”, and while perfection seems too lofty a goal, practice certainly does make one “better”.