Behold the Tumbleweed and other thoughts on managing conflict

My brother has a saying – “Behold the tumbleweed. He is only happy if he learns to love to tumble.” I like the saying because it puts a positive twist on the inevitably lonely, dusty, tumultuous, waterless existence of a chunk of sage brush rolling through the desert. But that’s my predictably forward-looking, make lemonade out of lemons, put your head down and get it done, optimistic brother.

If family business members could see their conflict-laden world in a similarly positive light, much good would come of it. Conflict in a family is as predictable as feeling sleepy after a heavy lunch. The trouble is, conflict between siblings around the dinner table may be interpreted to mean failure in the family, but disagreement between business partners in the boardroom is viewed as productive – a competition between progressive ideas.

Since the family is the first organization we encounter in life, the norms and rules we learn as children tend to supersede all others when we are around our parents, siblings and cousins. Most children are taught to “go along to get along”, to avoid or minimize conflict. In a family business setting, this can lead to family business partners who avoid conflict at all costs for fear that it signifies weakness or is a harbinger of the impending demise of the business.

The best family business leaders I’ve worked with create a clear expectation that healthy debate and respectful discussion about important topics are necessary for the longevity and well-being of the business. They communicate to partners, managers and adult family members that they are not interested in everyone agreeing with every word that comes out of their mouth. On the contrary, they express their belief that, in order for their business to thrive, they need the best ideas to be put on the table, debated, scrutinized, refined and turned into activities that create value.

In order to improve the amount of respectful debate in your family business system, may I suggest the following: 1) make clear the expectation that you want a healthy debate between different ideas (not people), 2) create rules of engagement that specify how you will communicate with each other, in person or otherwise, preferably to ensure civility and respect despite disagreement, 3) replace the phrase “conflict resolution” with “conflict management” in your family business vocabulary, 4) talk openly with your family business members about the need and the mechanics for separating business and family issues and discussions (e.g politely change the subject when the family council leader brings up a business issue during a holiday dinner), and 5) actively listen to other points of view and consider them carefully as ideas that could potentially benefit your family business system.

Oh, and one other thought – think differently about the tumbleweed the next time you see one. It is entirely possible that under that coating of dust and blanket of thorns he may be immensely happy and smiling gleefully.

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