Family Business Conflict can have Long & Complex Roots

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Kent Rhodes

In the context of the family enterprise, every conflict is further complicated because of the multiple roles and relationships of family members with each other. The CEO of a family enterprise may be the son of its founder. He may also be Dad to several children and Granddad to multiple grandchildren, some of whom also likely work in the company or serve in some kind of leadership capacity. He is likely the husband of a spouse who helped him build the business and raise those several children. He may also be a brother to a Vice President in the company or even a co-president with him or her. As if that were not enough, he is uncle to his siblings’ children and in some cases may also be their boss if they work in any aspect of the family enterprise.                      

All this inter-connectedness means conflicts in family businesses tend to not only be complex but also the result of long-term processes and relationships rather than one-time events. Although unaddressed events within a family can eventually cause an underlying way of relating between family members that then becomes an accepted norm in which family members view conflict with each other as “normal” for their family.

While most families have varying degrees of this otherwise harmless dynamic as core to their relationships with each other, the added weight of interacting within the context of the enterprise or business, can exacerbate conflict and even devolve into a destructive pattern of conflict over time that is not harmless.

When business conflict is properly addressed owners or managers tackle smaller challenges, managing them effectively in real time. But when events are not well managed or are accepted as normal or just ignored, they can become chronic, stack up over time, and become crisis points. In families with long or multigenerational histories together and with strong emotional ties, recognizing and managing conflict is more challenging than for non-family collaborators. Taking the time to think about those types of conflicts is worth the effort to do so in order to enhance family unity and business efficiency.

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