Conflict is a given in life. It’s a given for business, and even more of a given for family business. And in family business, the conflict can get personal because of the interrelated nature of family and business: roles, expectations and a long history together.
Conflict can be a strategic indicator (like the tip of an iceburg) of something foundational that needs to be put right in the organization. Discord can be a red flag pointing out where key conversations need to occur and lead to a real opportunity to make an adjustment.
What are the areas of your family business where conflict tends to rear its head?
Conflict, and all the ripples it creates in a family organization, can be a real distraction from the business and harm important relationships. There’s good news. Some conflict can be prevented before it even happens. Here are five proactive ways to do that:
1. Create good policies in the organization.
Create policies that address both the mundane and the sticky issues and put them in writing. Putting clear guidance into place sets the rule for everyone with no chance of being misunderstood. This can be anything from establishing vacation time and sick days to what are the education requirements for family members to work in the business. Policies level the playing field between family and non-family members working in the business and are a clear indication of good faith that everyone is treated in a fair manner.
Policies seem simple – and they can be – but I have worked with many families who did not have any real policies in place and it was weighing down the organization. Many of them seemed to have forgotten that they could construct a guideline around the issues, while others had resisted creating policies, feeling that they wanted to stay more “informal.” But informality can quickly turn to chaos.
Often one simple policy addressing a particular issue could save hours of time, protect relationships and make employees feel more secure in the organization.
What policies could directly address the conflicts you’ve had creep up in your family business?
2. Have regularly scheduled staff meetings and/or team meetings.
Meetings – run well – can make a big impact on potential conflict. Information flow is two-way and everyone hears it at the same time and has an opportunity to ask questions. Several strategic purposes are served by these interactions which deflate potential clashes: your team feels heard and involved and therefore more engaged; priorities are clearly established; information is shared with everyone simultaneously, leaving far fewer gaps where trouble can crop up.
For the business leader, it enforces the discipline of stating the agenda, relaying direction of the work AND getting it out of his or her head and into the business, an issue we hear frequently and may even be guilty of ourselves. Everyone, the boss included, is clear on the direction of the work.
What could a weekly or bi-weekly agenda look like that would keep your employees clear and the information flow going?
3. Make sure that roles and responsibilities are clear with written job descriptions.
Blame can rear its head quickly when important things fall through the cracks. Conflict is fast to arise when two (or more!) people think a plum project has their name on it. These situations are guaranteed to happen when you don’t have job descriptions in your business – and a slam dunk for conflict to arise. Address the gap and the overlap by creating job descriptions. Ownership and accountability are basic needs of the business. Being clear on responsibilities and scope of job creates a feeling of safety and makes an ongoing contribution to the morale of employees, stopping conflict in its tracks.
4. Model the behavior you want to see.
As the family business leader, you reap what you sow and you teach what you tolerate. If you run an operation where raised voices, clandestine activities and personal attacks are the norm, you’ve given the green light to conflict because you’re creating a culture of mistrust and a lack of safety. That’s fertile ground for conflict. If you want a culture of smooth operations, as the leader you’ll need to consistently model certain behaviors such as appropriate transparency, constructive feedback, two-way communication, a consistent focus on solutions instead of problems (and who caused it) and an attitude of respect for your employees.
What behaviors do you demonstrate that you’ve noticed have the most positive effect on your employees?
5. Keep business and family separate.
This one may need to appear in your policy manual (see item 1). It’s not easy but it is imperative to putting the brakes on conflict. Situations from work can get literally out of bounds when you bring them home where they can turn into family drama. Family members must be able to relax into their personal roles and make a conscious separation from the business. This greatly reduces discord and also serves to give perspective on the issue when you return to the office. If someone in the family business blurs the lines and wants to talk shop at home or during off hours, get into the habit of suggesting to talk about it the next day at work.
What is one step you can take this week towards keeping the business and family separate?
The overarching theme here of basic conflict prevention is to create an intentional culture of clarity, communication and consistency. Taking these steps creates a greater feeling of trust and safety. This results in better business and a stronger family.