The Truth About Conflict in a Family Business

Every family business experiences conflict.

There – I said it.

No matter how much love, loyalty, affection, and respect defines your family relationships, you will still experience moments of opposition and disagreement.

And that’s actually OK.

It’s a common misconception that conflict means you’re doing something wrong, but it really doesn’t.

In this article, I want to unpack some of the myths that we tend to see around conflict in family businesses.

These myths are powerful – and if you’re not careful, they may hinder your organization’s growth.

Myth #1: Conflict and disloyalty are the same.

One commonly held belief is that the presence of conflict automatically means someone is being disloyal to the family or the business – or both.

But that simply isn’t true.

Conflict, most of the time, simply means a misalignment on expectations or direction – or even a simple difference of opinion on how to approach a particular business challenge.

This kind of conflict is healthy.

You want it.

This kind of conflict represents refining one another’s ideas to get to the best options for your business.

It’s a healthy exchange of differing opinions that fosters understanding and, ultimately, builds stronger relationships.

In fact, you should encourage and expect this kind of conflict among your business leaders and your family members so that you are fully understanding one another and pushing each other to reach better outcomes for your business.

Ironically, disloyalty seems to appear when people don’t feel a sense of shared mutual respect and the ability to disagree.

When they don’t communicate, people internalize their resentment, confusion, or other big feelings, which actually creates more tension that can lead to disloyalty.

It might manifest as sabotaging a project (even unintentionally) or simply not communicating.

So as a business leader, it’s important that you coach your team on how to engage in healthy conflict, communicate effectively, and move forward with an even stronger relationship.

Myth #2: Perpetual harmony is ideal.

No family – and no family business – operates in perfect harmony all the time.

It’s simply impossible within a given collection of human beings, so let’s blow up that myth right now.

And often what looks like harmony is actually everyone biting their tongues and supporting the status quo to avoid conflict.

So, stop chasing harmony as your goal. You’ll never reach it.

I can’t emphasize this enough: there is nothing wrong with your business, or with your family, if you aren’t experiencing a magical sense of perfect harmony all the time.

This is normal.

In fact, it’s essential to have the conversations that address issues and move your organization forward in a healthy way.

More important than harmony is healthy conflict – addressing what needs to be addressed in a way that maintains respect and strengthens, rather than destroys, relationships.

Embracing occasional conflicts is a sign of your team actively pushing boundaries, both personally and professionally – and it’s a testament to the health of relationships, indicating openness to growth and improvement.

Myth #3: Senior leaders always know best.

Here’s another persistent family business myth: the senior members of the family/leadership team have all the knowledge, which they then share with younger generations. And there’s nothing more experienced generations can learn from their younger family members and business partners.

This is another source of conflict and we need to unpack this one a bit.

When you think about family dynamics, there are a lot of deep-rooted communication styles and habits that exist – and they’re often directed from parent to child.

So, naturally, one of the first steps toward healthy boundaries is understanding that the dynamics of that relationship simply have to change.

And it all starts with respect.

If there’s no mutual respect for the knowledge and experience that each generation brings to the table, you really can’t go much further in a conversation.

Yes – older generations bring a lot of experience to the table, and they’ve seen and lived a lot of things. AND – younger generations bring fresh perspectives, new energy, and a sense of optimism.

These things can co-exist – and they should.

Every family business has to learn to balance these different viewpoints, always with respect for the value of each. The key is to thoughtfully consider and respect both perspectives, appreciating their value in different situations.

Communication is the key to managing healthy conflict in a family business

I’ve talked a lot here about respect – and respect is shown through consistent communication.

When new ideas and perspectives are clearly and respectfully communicated, your team and your family can work through disagreements and conflicting opinions and emerge healthier and stronger on the other side.

Many of our clients need assistance navigating family dynamics precisely because effective communication is a challenge.

Understanding and respecting diverse viewpoints is crucial, especially when conflicts arise.

If you’d like a partner in working through healthy conflict within your organization, our team at Ferguson Alliance would love to help.

Reach out today to set up a call with one of our trusted family business advisors.

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