Embracing Conflict in Family Business
Last week I mentioned the Family Firm Institute’s annual conference that I attended in Chicago in October, and how I came home with many weeks’ worth of blog material.
So today I’ll take one of the sessions that I enjoyed and build this post around it.
Here’s the title of the presentation in question:
“Can Embracing Conflict Spur Positive Change?”
Joe Astrachan and Carrie Hall were the presenters, and they based much of their discussion on a recent survey of some of the largest family businesses in the world.
Here is a link to their report.
Often when people like me get called into a business family, it’s because there’s something going on that could be described as “conflictual” in nature.
One of the first pieces of “good news” from the conflict is that it has heightened the sense that there’s a need to call in an outsider to help get the family to a better place.
Now, if that outsider is open-minded, well trained, and comfortable with a high conflict environment, then why couldn’t the conflct actually spur positive change?
What’s the Alternative?
Too often families will avoid conflict, or even any semblance of conflict, at all cost. Certain family cultures simply don’t “allow” any expressions of confrontation, negativity, or even challenges to authority.
Unfortunately, that often masks important differences that actually really NEED to be expressed, brought out, and dealt with.
One of the first pieces I recall reading about this, the one where you could say I had my “A-Ha moment” on this subject, was “The Invaluable Gift of Conflict”, by Matt Wesley.
Two Main Components
The presence of conflict, aside from it resulting in the arrival of an outsider to assist in moving the family forward, is also that visible conflict is preferable to simply having issues simmer quietly under the surface.
The consequences of unexpressed issues can be bitterness and dissatisfaction that lasts for years (decades?) before finally exploding. Unaddressed issues will often only get worse with time.
But the second “good news” aspect of conflict in a family business is the “energy” that it can create, and that energy can be harnessed, for “good”.
Stagnation and Apathy
One of the side effects of having people who are displeased in key positions (in the business or in the family, if not both) is that it can breed apathy and a feeling that things will never change, or that they’ll only change far in the future, and only when their perceived “problem person” is gone.
That apathy and feeling of resignation can turn into stagnation very quickly.
Conflict that erupts and becomes visible can be much healthier because at least you can see it and you’re forced into action to deal with it.
Back to the presentation by Astrachan and Hall. The biggest “take home” message for me was their idea of creating “one story” for the family to tell. Some background and context are necessary here.
They described a situation where there was a severe rift in a family, yet a couple of the branches of the family managed to come back together.
One of the keys to making it all work, was to come up with the “one story” that the family would tell (to themselves and to the world in general) about the business and the family history.
Singing from the Same Hymn Book
Any family business that has lasted more than a few decades will do well to compile and tell their story, if only for the “marketing” power that this can have.
When it comes time to “inculcate” younger members of the family into the business’s culture, these history lessons are pretty important too.
But in the case of a family “coming back together” after a rift, the part of the story dealing with the cause of the rift, and more importantly, the way the family overcame it, can be huge.
The presentation (and this blog) are about positive change, and getting the story straight can have more of a positive influence than many people will realize.
The first step may just be to learn to “embrace” the conflicts that you can actually see.
You can only get through difficulties when you actually put things “on the table”. And if you need outside help, then get some.