Moving from Fake Harmony to Constructive Conflict

Summary: We all know that too much conflict is a problem in any family business. But we don’t always recognize that too little conflict can be a problem, too. Conflict is a “Goldilocks” problem – too much and too little can lead to similarly unhealthy outcomes for the business and the family. You should focus, instead, on getting comfortable with a healthy amount of conflict. To get there, you can try these strategies: Agree on meeting ground rules, Build a shared purpose, Create “beachheads” to build momentum, Focus on principles rather than people, Graft new ideas onto existing ones, Affirm the value of what came before. Conflict doesn’t have to destroy a family -- managed well, it can make the bonds even stronger.

Sierra Nevada is a family-owned beer company. Their tagline, which shows up on every can and bottle, is, “FAMILY OWNED, OPERATED & ARGUED OVER.” Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder, says, “It’s funny, but it’s the truth. We can get together and argue over what’s best for us as a company moving forward, but we all do it in good faith, knowing that everyone wants what’s best overall.”

Can you say something similar about your family business? If not, you may find yourself in a difficult position precisely because you have avoided conflict. Take, for example, the experience of one family in the retail business. Throughout the years, tempers would begin to flare – not because there was too much disagreement, but because important decisions were avoided rather than dealing with potential disagreement. For example, while every member of the third generation worked in the business, there was a major discrepancy in their commitment levels and contributions. Those who worked overtime to get their work done began resenting those who showed up at their leisure, but the family resisted setting any standards that might alienate someone. Eventually, the leaders of the business decided to sell the company rather than tackle the disagreements that would threaten to disrupt family harmony during the transition to the third generation. Unfortunately, selling the business did not solve the problem, as there were grievances about how the proceeds were divided and a feeling among many that they had given up the family legacy too easily. And without the business to keep them together, the family started to drift apart. Within a few years, many family members looked back on the sale as a mistake. Both the business and the close relationships are now gone.

There is, however, a better path – what we’ve come to call “The Goldilocks Zone” of conflict, where disagreements can be constructively aired and discussed.

If, like this family, you find yourself on the “too little” side of the conflict spectrum, here’s some advice on getting into the Goldilocks Zone:

No one aims to have conflict within a business – and even worse, within a family. But some conflict is actually healthy. It provides a chance to clear the air of lingering resentments and potential issues, and perhaps to even find a productive process for disagreeing and still making decisions. Conflict doesn’t have to destroy a family – managed well, it can make the bonds even stronger. But when it’s allowed to fester, the descent to irrevocably broken relationships can be swift.

*Adapted from the Harvard Business Review Family Business Handbook by Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer. Pages 221-223.