Tag Archives: conflict

Results from Bully Surveys

Last month we launched our initial ‘quick survey’ of Family Business Advisor (FBA) readers and our own FBCG advisors to get some feedback from our audience about their experience with the article’s topic.  Last month’s FBA newsletter touched on the difficult topic of bullying.  While we did not get many answers – the responses are of interest.

1) Just over half of our readers felt family-owned businesses encounter MORE bullying than publicly-traded companies – YET when we asked our advisors what percentage of their family business clients struggled with bullying issues, about 35% said none and a further 25% said 20% or less of their clients had bullying issues of which they were aware.  This suggests that perhaps readers who have struggled with this challenge in their own business might have been more inclined to participate.

2) When asked to identify ‘who’ was the bully most often in a family-owned business, there was a wide range of specific responses (sibling, parent, child, etc.), but most answers fell in categories of family members who were involved in the business.  This response pattern was true of readers and of advisors.  Likewise, when asked who the victim was – both sets of respondents indicated family members were most often the victims in these situations.  These answers suggest that a lot of the bullying in family businesses is intra-family bullying, putting the additional emotional load of family connection (on top of the power issues that are often involved in these situations) into the toxic soup of bullying.

3) If we consider who is doing the bullying and who is the victim of bullying in family business, it is not surprising to read many comments from readers telling us that in their situation: ‘the bullying was not fully handled,’ ‘that person is now in charge,’ ‘the behavior is being enabled by other family members…’.  These are disconcerting comments and give us a sense of how toxic it can be when there is bullying in a family business.

We deeply appreciate everyone’s participation in these ‘mini-surveys’ (only 3 or 4 questions, very fast to complete) and hope readers gain some additional insights alongside us as we seek to hear from readers about their lived experienced with these complex topics.  We hope many folks will take a couple of minutes to answer the survey related to this months’ article – and as always, if you are interested in learning more about how the Family Business Consulting Group, Inc. may be a resource to you and your family, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Gratefully, the Family Business Advisor


Bullying in the Family Business: What Should You Do About It?

JoAnne Norton

Your sister-in-law works in your family’s business right alongside of you and for some reason thinks she can do both her job and your job better than you can. You begin dreading the day as you drive to work knowing she’s probably already at the office ready to pounce on you yet again, criticizing and correcting you, surprisingly sarcastic for someone you once got along with so well. More than anything, it is her condescending tone of voice that makes you leave your family’s business each day feeling demeaned and demoralized. How do you make this bad behavior stop?

The titles of the best-selling books on the market would have you believe it is just a matter of having a conversation—a crucial one, a fierce one, or a difficult one. While all of the authors have excellent ideas and wise advice, the key word in all of the titles is conversations. You cannot keep putting up with bad behavior hoping your sister-in-law will magically change over night because that strategy simply guarantees more of the same bad behavior. You need to talk.

Bullying is detrimental to relationships in the business and in the family. Worse yet, it can have a serious impact on the family for generations. Children and grandchildren who witness disrespectful and hurtful putdowns learn: A) exactly how to behave this way, and B) it is okay to treat each other poorly. That’s why when these disrespectful dealings are going on, it is the business of the family to have a conversation about it.

To begin with, it must be made clear that all family members are required to speak to each other respectfully. Talking rudely and putting someone down are completely unacceptable behaviors. Bullying is counter-productive in a family culture and should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

If a family member is feeling bullied, or if any family member witnesses bullying, it is time to have one of those conversations—a conversation that should take place with an objective outsider, maybe even a professional. The sooner the conversation is held, the less lasting damage will be done. But keep in mind that this is a critical conversation and one that should never be done by email or text. The preservation of your family is too precious not to be taken seriously.

For more information on how to deal with difficult issues, please join my colleague, Joe Schmieder, and me for our webinar on December 4 at 1:00PM EST when we’ll be talking about “The Ties That Bind: Facing Up to the Difficult, Sometimes Brutal, Family Business Issues.” For more information click here.


How Do You Describe Your Family Business’s Culture?

Kent Rhodes

Anthropologists have long known that the task of learning about a specific group’s culture–or the unique way they interact with each other and complete tasks–starts by asking individual members about what they value, their key relationships, and their history.

It is important to pay attention to the unique family business culture of a firm because culture is about identifying bedrock components of the business that are the functional equivalent of the core “bones” of a building (the foundation, beams, pilings, etc). And cultural traits in a family business tend to be simpler, outward manifestations of the more complex underpinnings that hold a family business together. These traits help define what it does and, more importantly, how it does it.

 Identifying cultural traits in an organization is difficult if done from within the culture itself. For example, it’s been proven over and over again that the average American struggles to accurately identify much about “American culture”, beyond being independently minded. A careful observer from another country can easily describe some unique US traits: Highly patriotic, expectations around optimism, mobility, etc. In fact, not only is this struggle true of inhabitants of any national culture, it is also true for people living and working within organizations as well, including the family firm.

Being able to describe these core parts of a family business culture is important as the firm grows and moves into subsequent generations because it helps us understand who we are, how we like to do things and what makes us successful as a business and as a family. It also helps us identify where we might be bumping up against conflict that challenges that success and this is where the real value lies in understanding your organization’s culture.


Facing up to Difficult Family Business Issues

Joe Schmieder

“Hey dad, could we talk about what Uncle Ted is doing to turn-around our construction division?”  asked Jerry Bates, third-generation family member working in the business as Vice President of Development.  His CEO father, Donald, replied:   “Sure son, we can address this in 2016 when Ted is ready to retire!”

Why do so many members of an enterprising family avoid discussing difficult matters?  Some of the brightest family business leaders simply cannot, or will not, take on issues that could create a potential fissure in a family relationship.  As close brothers, Donald and Ted have gone through many challenges together in life after their father died when they were in their twenties.  Although not fully prepared, they had to grab the reins of the business and learn quickly on the job to lead the family firm.   They built the company into a thriving entity that now employs over 300 people, including five family members.    As the Great Recession severely impacted the business, particularly Ted’s division, they have not been able to fully discuss some tough measures to take with employ lay-offs and other expense reductions to bring the division back to profitability.

Whatever the reason, family members are prone to avoid many tough issues when they believe the risk of damaging the family is too high.  Unfortunately, most difficult family business issues do not go away.  Like a weeds in a garden, the “un-addressed tough issues” can eventually choke out the valuable elements of the family business.


Family Business Conflict can have Long & Complex Roots

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.


Key Questions for Conflict Resolution in a Family Business

Kent Rhodes

To effectively address the interpersonal conflicts in family business, it is important to understand and address the unique challenges that occur when families simultaneously work to build a multi-generational enterprise, work to give back to their communities, and share financial assets that benefit both the family and its individual members.

Traditional approaches of conflict resolution have their roots primarily in the legal and family counseling fields and as such, tend to present overly simplistic ways to “resolve” conflicts that are common to families in business together. In order to figure out a realistic approach to these unique challenges, it can be helpful to first consider: 

  • Which conflicts need to be managed rather than “resolved”?
  • Can we clearly define the conflict in a way that everyone’s perspective is included?
  • Are we willing to explore every option to address a conflict?
  • Can we think about long term “fixes” versus quick ones?
  • How might we maximize opportunities for learning and increased relationships that addressing conflict can offer a family? 

These questions require you to widen your frame and set yourself up to find lasting and comprehensive solutions.


Family Business Conflict

Kent Rhodes

According to some experts, conflict is “a process that begins when an individual or group perceives differences and opposition between itself and another individual or group about interests and resources, beliefs, values or practices that matter to them”[1].  While that definition is accurate, it isn’t quite enough to accurately describe conflicts that are common to family business. 

Today, many enterprising families also collaborate in managing family offices, overseeing philanthropic endeavors through established family foundations, or sharing control of other public/ private enterprises. While all collaborations will run into their share of disagreements, the unique qualities of family at the intersection of these enterprises bring special challenges to effectively managing conflict. The dynamics that can produce conflict within a family simultaneously intersect with the challenges of owning and operating a business, introducing emotional and historical dynamics that complicate solutions and opportunities. 

It is important to bear in mind that when managed correctly, some conflicts can be beneficial – for example spurring important new ideas, innovations and energy for the business. While knowing how to manage conflict and leverage it into an advantage may not be immediately clear, and the emotional load of conflict in a family business can feel threatening – it is important not to avoid conflict, but to work to address it effectively for the benefit of the family and the business.


[1] De Dreu, Harinck, & Van Vianen, (1999). Conflict and performance in groups and organizations. In Cooper & Robertson (Eds.), International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Vol 14, pp. 369-414). Chichester, UK: Wiley.


Inherited Partners

Chris Eckrich
Chris Eckrich

Few people would ever allow someone else to choose their business partners if they were founding a company, but this indirectly happens quite frequently in family enterprise.  Thoughtful and forward planning parents pass on the assets they worked so hard to build or steward to thier children, who then become business partners in addition to being siblings (or cousins).

While being partners in a family enterprise is deeply rewarding for many, each generation must reaffirm the partnership and work towards alignment in family and shareholder goals for the business and family relationships to function.  Sadly, many family business members experience and focus on the stresses or conflicts in working together without every trluly exploring why they want to be partners in the first place, regardless of how they came into the partnership.  Focusing on the latter is far more likely to produce the secure bonds that will allow both family and business partnerships to flourish.


The Novocain of Diplomacy

Dana Telford

On a morning not long ago, while sitting in the dentist’s chair for my first (and please, please, please last) root canal, I was reminded of the importance of communication style.

“Dr. Payne” (or as my kids call him, Dr. Thick Fingers) shot my upper right jaw with Novocain, left me to my own thoughts of nervous anticipation for the appropriate amount of time, and re-appeared, eager to see if my gum was indeed numb.

“You gonna jab it to see?” I asked. He smiled, paused and replied, “We don’t use the term ‘jab’. We prefer to say ‘poke’.  Conjures up a less violent image, wouldn’t you say?” and then proceeded to stab me, which I (happily), could not feel. “Any pain?” he asked. “Nope,” I replied, relieved.   

And out came the screeching, high-speed, demolition drill.

As I shut my eyes against the smoke pouring from my mouth, I was reminded of a previous argument with my wife. I don’t remember what it was about, nor does she. What I remember is how diplomatically she “poked” me in the heat of battle. We were yacking back and forth about who did what and who said what and how much or not it was really meant when she stopped, looked me square in the eye and said, “one of the strengths you don’t have is…”

I put the dot dot dot there because I literally have no recollection of what bit of constructive criticism she then delivered. I do remember being struck by the clever beauty of the statement, which made us both laugh and put a prompt and splendid end to our spat.

In dealing with family members, shareholders and colleagues, may we all remember to poke, not jab or stab, each other by delivering criticisms that are numbed by the Novocain of diplomacy.


The road to ruin is paved with good intention – What it takes to be the company’s next leader – Part 3 of 3

Drew Mendoza


In our line of work, it is common for one family member to describe another family member in less than glowing fashion.  We hear a lot, no make that A LOT, of descriptions by one member of another that suggest or proclaim themes, hidden agendas or perceived personality flaws.  

And in every case, the descriptions are true and valid from the speaker’s point of view and based on their own personal perception. 

In family business the stakes not only include family relationships but they also  include money.  Significant amounts of it relative to the overall net worth of every member of the family.  And we humans predictably and understandably become worried, anxious and / or frightened at the possibility of our own financial ruin, and that it could be caused by another member of the family.  In the saddest and worst case scenarios actions like, time with grandchildren being withheld as punishment against grandparents, siblings no longer speaking to each other, and estrangements and cutoffs occur.  We have all read tragic sagas in the newspapers of family members going to court, or worse family implosions that cause the demise not only of the business, but the family. 

And yet, in most cases, these same family members who seemingly judge, criticize, battle with, or do not trust one another – when assessed by independent, objective and trained professionals – are determined to be, not only normal, but, in their heart of hearts, well intentioned.  Sure, they can sometimes appear to be mean spirited, arrogant, or self-serving.  But, beneath that facade, usually lies someone who is well intentioned, and loves their family, despite the not-so-great ways they manifest their own fears and worries. 

Current leaders, next generation leaders and family leaders may sometimes not appear to their cousins or siblings as being well intentioned. And, it is just as common that these leaders view those same cousins and siblings as being less-than-well intentioned too. 

The empirical research is clear:  the genesis of family enterprise failures most often are caused by strife among two or more people who, really, in their heart of hearts, have the very best of intentions. 

So what is the answer? It seems like it might be complicated, but the simple solution is to always keep the lines of communication open, take the time to understand what another might perceive. If you shut down the communication there is no hope, but choosing the often difficult path of trying and trying once again, it is at least possible that families could eventually understand and uncover the good intentions of their family.