Excessive Conflict is bad, Artificial Harmony is Worse

I find that often people think about conflict when they think about family business. Many believe that there is a direct link between family businesses and rowdy meetings whereby conflict is the order of the day. That may all be true. However I feel that far worse than conflict, family businesses are plagued by a sort of artificial harmony, where conflict and difficult discussions and decisions are avoided and everything keeps being swept under the carpet.

It is true that, that excessive conflict (as opposed to constructive disagreement) can be very harmful. Moreover what is actually conflict and if it is excessive or not, depends on family culture and personal interpretation. Some families can more easily tolerate conflict than others. However, like one can see common patterns of excessive conflicts, one can also see common patterns of artificial harmony.

Disagreement in a family business is natural over time. The more the family business grows and the more the family grows from one generation to the next, the higher the likelihood that interests diverge. So it is only natural and I dare healthy for present & future family business owners to have different perspectives. Actually if any family business isn’t discussing different competing ideas, the case is very likely to be that family business leaders are avoiding conversations about important issues – leading to artificial harmony. Such artificial harmony can be far more damaging than conflict because it leads to constant avoidance – the avoidance for family businesses to make difficult but important decisions about the business and/or the family.

Overall artificial harmony risks leading the family business to the below situations:-

  • Artificial harmony can also create resentment in the family. People don’t feel like they can express their interests or opinions for fear of creating conflict. Issues may be unspoken, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone.
  • Artificial harmony also stifles innovation. Families business can provide a fertile ground for great ideas, but when individuals don’t share ideas because they are afraid to “rock the boat,” businesses and family owners miss opportunities to innovate.
  • Artificial harmony also makes succession planning in family businesses so difficult, as it like limits cross-generational conversations and collaboration. Without these cross generational conversations, it is very likely that the senior generation will not learn to trust the junior generation and vice versa, while the junior generation may not understand the senior generation’s intentions and approach – leading to a never ending sense of frustration.
  • Artificial harmony, can lead to an “explosive event” situation, whereby an unaddressed conflict that builds and builds over time until it erupts into far more serious and complex arguments, which end up tearing the fabric of a family and limit the family business’s ability to make important decisions together.Often, the cliff event that triggers outright conflict after a long period of fake harmony is seemingly small on its own. But the months or years of keeping quiet over other disagreements are baked into that moment, too. So, when it explodes, it can be hard to undo the damage. And when that happens, months, years, or even decades of progress as a family and an owner group can be undone

However, let me be clear. Even if you realise that your family business is suffering from artificial harmony and that it is holding your family business back, you need to tread very carefully.
Several tools and approaches can be effective in guarding against artificial harmony in a family business. Here are some examples:

  • Start with easier issues. If your family business is struggling with artificial harmony, you don’t have to dive right into the most challenging issues. Start with conversations and decisions that won’t incite highly emotional reactions.
  • Use surveys to uncover opinions anonymously: Have family members fill out a quick anonymous survey before and after a key meeting to create a helpful barometer, cna be a useful tool. Such surveys can ask family members what topics they want to address or explore what went well in a meeting and what could be improved. Such surveys can provide an easy, but helpful, opportunity to offer constructive feedback.
  • Consider facilitated conversations. Bring in an outsider to facilitate a challenging conversation. An outsider can set ground rules and boundaries for the conversation, monitor those boundaries, reset the conversation if things are getting off track and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard.
  • Strengthen transparency. Many times artificial harmony exists as many family business owners are not fully informed about what is happening in the family business. Hence artificial harmony festers as family members feeling insecure and afraid that asking questions will make them appear dumb or uninformed and hence they prefer not exposing themselves. If family owners and other stakeholders are kept informed on the business and on the key decisions being made, people are less likely to feel afraid to ask questions. Sunlight can be the best disinfectant.

Both conflict and artificial harmony are common in family business all over the world. Balancing the two is an important part of making good decisions together, and it isn’t always easy for any family, no matter how much they love each other. Families can get so focused on wanting to present a perfect facade of their business to the outside world that they build a false one on the inside, too. But there’s no such thing as a perfect family or a perfect family business.

I will soon be delivering a training session on conflict management, which will touch on how to create a healthy culture of constructive criticism at the workplace. This training will focus on achieving the following:-

  • Reduce anxiety and frustration about conflict amongst co-workers
  • Avoiding conflict whilst not allowing tension and resentment to fester
  • Learn to use differences of opinion and conflicts constructively, leading to growth and creativity
  • Using proven strategies and powerful communication skills to prevent and manage conflict
  • Learn what is your personal conflict management style and how to improve your reactions
  • Learn when to intervene and how to approach conflict resolution conversations
  • Learn how to get to the root cause of conflicts and prevent conflicts from re-occurring

The training session will be held online on 12th October at 1:30pm. To register please click HERE.

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