Working in or owning a family business together is full of benefits (meaningful work, a chance to make a difference, financial security, and others), but it is not uncommon to have periods of tension that, if left unattended, may become chronic and exhausting. For example, brother wants to expand, but sister wants to minimize risk. Or, cousin A is leading the organization and wants more control (and reward), and is frustrated with cousin B who is not performing, or nitpicking. As tensions build, it may start to feel like the other party is not just doing something annoying or contrarian, but is responsible for the frustration felt. When this happens, we start to see the other party as the enemy, obsess about their wrongdoings, simmer, and either escalation occurs, or we just avoid contact and ignore discussions that might be helpful for the organization, but are too painful to hold. It is not uncommon for one or both parties to either think or say, “I am getting tired of this!”
So often, the roots of conflict and tension lie in lack of alignment between expectations on direction, roles and responsibilities. Families have learned in recent years to recognize tensions as systemic challenges that can be addressed, rather than personal failings or weaknesses that must simply be endured or avoided. For example, high quality time spent discussing the roles that each person is playing and the expectations that accompany those roles will generally be much more productive in addressing performance issues among a sibling team than venting to a spouse or sending emails pointing out inadequacies. Families have learned that working ON the issue (in this example, making sure that all understand what each person should be doing), is far less time consuming and energy draining than being stuck IN the issue (raised voices and defensiveness).
We can’t eliminate all disagreement or conflict in family business, but ongoing or increasing tension is our early warning system that it is time to create the space to work on the issue.