Conflict is unavoidable, even in the closest families and the best run companies. Because individuals have had different life experiences, they are likely to have varying opinions about the "right" way to do things. If these views are strong enough, a clash will inevitably result when another person challenges them.
Successful business families learn to manage such differences. Indeed, they are apt to find that discussion of alternative viewpoints often leads to constructive change. Yet many busy executives don’t know how to handle conflict. Business owners who never developed conflict-resolution skills may hesitate to put interpersonal issues on the table for fear that the mere articulation of their feelings will damage their relationship with the other party.
AVOIDANCE OF RESOLVING CONFLICT
Paradoxically, avoidance of conflict within the family business can do far greater damage to the relationship in the long run. If a major question - like who will be the successor and when he or she will assume the top job isn't discussed frankly, family members' long-term career prospects could be permanently damaged, and the future health of the business could be compromised.
Some families take conflict avoidance to an extreme; they never get around to settling important questions until it's too late. Others seem to have the opposite problem - they can't stop fighting. But many of these bickering families are themselves practicing a strange form of conflict avoidance. Their constant squabbling, usually over trivial matters, is actually a smokescreen that masks what's really upsetting them.
Communication is the key to success in maintaining a family business. Yet many families never get to first base in addressing communication issues, even those who realize how important it is to the outcome of resolving family differences.
WHY FAMILIES DON'T COMMUNICATE
HIDDEN AGENDAS ARE A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO COMMUNICATION IN FAMILIES
A typical case, the father's hidden agenda may be that he has no intention of letting go. But the son's failure to confront his father on the succession issue may result from a hidden agenda too. It may be that he really doesn’t care for the responsibilities of leadership, but he doesn’t have the courage to say so.
A SECOND BLOCK TO COMMUNICATION RESULTS FROM WAITING TOO LONG TO ADDRESS THE ISSUES
With the passage of time, small silences can grow into a mountain of guilt and rationalisation. On the one hand, the father may be thinking, "I should have dealt with this years ago, and I have let it go too long. Now I am too embarrassed to deal with it." On the other hand, the son may be thinking that, absent any word to the contrary from Dad, his entitlement to the top job grows with every passing day.
A THIRD & CRITICAL BLOCK IS THE FEELING THAT THE ISSUES ARE SO HIGHLY EMOTIONAL THAT THEY SEEM TO PRELUDE ANY RATIONAL DISCUSSION
When a son has invested 18 years of his life in the hope of eventually running a business, any talk of succession with his father is bound to be powerfully charged for both.
Real communication has an element of vulnerability to it. So if the son goes to Dad and tells him about his concerns for the future, he may hear something he doesn’t want to hear. Yet its far more risky to the relationship and to the son's future to let issues fester.
WHEN CRISIS IS IMMINENT
The father and son have a lot of work to do. Ten years ago Dad probably could have eased his son out of the business without causing an uproar in the family. They would have made it possible to prepare a professional manager to run the company when the father was ready to retire. Now it's too late. The son has few career alternatives. Because Dad has not dealt with the issue for so long, he has lost a lot of his moral authority. He knows it and feels powerless.
Both father and son must look for win-win alternatives that can extricate them from the dilemma that has led to mutual avoidance of the issues.
The situation demands an enormous amount of communication, patient problem solving and compassion. Sadly, such qualities are frequently beyond the emotional resources of some families. The leader then faces the awful choice of saving the business or the relationship.
Only by talking about their concerns is the family able to begin a true healing process. Once they break out of their self-destructive patterns and begin to talk about the serious matter is the family able to resolve the conflict.