When to Get Involved in a Family Conflict

By Edwin T. Crego Jr.

To most viewers, the family feuds depicted on TV shows, such as those among the Ewings of Dallas and the Carringtons of Dynasty, probably appear to be the stuff of pure fiction. But these dramatized situations pale in comparison with real-life family business bouts, such as the well-publicized ones among the Shoens of U-Haul, the Binghams of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the Kochs of Koch Industries.

Disagreements abound among family members in all family businesses. Fortunately, few of these arguments approach the earthquake magnitude of those cited above. Typically, they're of the sort described by a participant in one of my family business seminars who said, "My brothers and I constantly have small arguments that we can't resolve ourselves, so we get our father involved. We call him the referee. My question is, how will we handle this once the referee is gone?"

Most family conflicts are resolved before anyone outside of the immediate family is aware of them. However, some family businesses are laden with friction and every now and then, even in the best-run businesses, a squabble may escalate and drag in nonfamily employees.

The question is, what should you, as a respected nonfamily executive in the family business, do then? Your first instinct may be to lie low and let the dispute run its natural course. Although this might feel prudent (and safe), you are likely to be sucked into the situation in some fashion or, at least, be affected by it.

Rather than being forced to assume a reactive posture, you would be smart to take control over your entry into the fray. You can dictate when you get involved. But choose carefully — your timing and approach can make a tremendous difference in how your contribution is received and in whether or not the conflict is resolved constructively.

Usually, the sooner you can become the referee, the better. A conflict in its embryonic stage is much easier to resolve. Of course, it's always best if your assistance is solicited by all parties involved in the dispute. As the old counseling maxim goes: "Help not perceived as help is not help."

A note of caution: Such fights frequently bear not only on the substantive issues of the conflict, but also on the relationships involved (for example, between parents and children or between siblings). As Drs. Jeffrey and Carol Rubin note in their new book When Families Fight, family members in a dispute may be "struggling with issues of trust, control, autonomy, separation, emotional openness, and self-esteem."This overlap of family emotions and business disagreements makes family fights more complicated than those that normally take place in the business setting. Recognizing this, you shouldn't intervene in situations that are too emotionally laden or are primarily the result of heavily conflicted family situations. Professional help is required under these circumstances.

If you've decided that it's appropriate and worthwhile to intervene, there are a number of roles that you can assume to help unfreeze the family's problem situation. These roles fall into two categories.

Task roles enable you to work directly on the problem confronting the family group:

  • Information giver — providing new facts or additional data about issues.
  • Information seeker — asking questions to secure more data and a better understanding of different facets of the situation.
  • Clarifier — explaining facts in a way that makes them clearer.
  • Summarizer — pulling together ideas, facts, and suggestions in an effort to reach agreement.
  • Decision tester — seeking consensus on a decision.

Maintenance roles help you encourage the family members by making them feel good about working together on their problems:

  • Initiator — stimulating the group to take new directions or a different perspective on the problem situation.,
  • Encourager — commending the family members' progress and helping them to believe that the problem is resolvable.
  • Harmonizer — mediating differences among the family members.

Some simple guidelines will help you succeed in each function: Avoid taking sides; get the participants in the dispute to focus on and stick to the issues; provide a range of alternatives, instead of a single answer; don't make the decision, facilitate decision making; and secure agreement from all participants on the decision or resolution to the problem before concluding any meeting.

In their seminal book on negotiations, Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury recommend a four-step methodology for effective problem-solving. These steps are: separate the people from the problem; focus on interests, not position; invent options for mutual gain; and insist on using objective criteria to reach conclusions.

If you're going to function well as a mediator, this book is well worth reading. It's short, understandable, and full of solid advice that you will find useful to help others achieve agreement without giving in.

If you have the organizational status and the right skills, you have a responsibility as a respected outsider to help resolve family business disputes. It's in your own best interest as well as those of the business. Given that these family fights can sometimes spell the difference between the life and death of the business itself, the firm that you save may be the family's. The job that you save may be your own.

Edwin T. Crego Jr., national director of Laventhol & Horwath's organizational consulting division in Chicago, is coauthor of the newly published book, Your Family Business.

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Issue: 
March 1990

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