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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Turning Personal Conflict Into Productive Teamwork

by Shel Horowitz

If you don't have conflict, you might not have a business. That sounds pretty far-out, but consider these quotes from two giants of the 20th-century business world:

"Any time two of my managers agree completely, I can get rid of one." — William Wrigley, Jr. (of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame)

"I propose that we postpone discussion and gain time to create disagreement.— Alfred P. Sloan,

Both of these quotes were supplied by Ken Kaye in his talk to the Family Business Center March 9 at the Delaney House. A Harvard-educated family therapist, family business consultant, author, and speaker, his many books include Workplace Wars and How to End Them: Turning Personal Conflicts into Productive Teamwork.

"If two people own a business together, and they both believe their goal is to get the Raytheon account, no problem. But what if one wants to get the account and the other wants to reduce the debt. Is that a problem? No. These are compatible goals. But if one wants to reduce the debt and the other's goal is to acquire machinery, you might have an incompatible conflict."

But companies can put mechanisms in place to work toward resolution. "We need to make it known that it's appropriate to address the conflict, that we have a mechanism where they will be heard. We have [as a country] a set of structures for resolving conflicts. We have the court system, and a legislative system, and as a result, compared to societies lack such institutions, we Americans settle the vast majority of our conflicts without resorting to violence. Our diverse groups coexist in amazing harmony. We need to have conflict resolving systems in our companies as well.

Individuals can approach conflict situations with an eye to understanding, not defense of their own position. "Don't anticipate what you think the other person is going to say. Listen. If I interrupt him, he doesn't know that I've heard what he said. Thank them, appreciate them, for telling you. It's not to be nice, but I have to make him know that I understood because I want him to listen to me! Otherwise, he'll be thinking, that SOB interrupted me!

"Salespeople are excellent listeners with prospective customers. Less good with existing customers, a lot worse with colleagues, and worst of all with their families. The problem is, the people who matter the most to us are the ones we take for granted. We don't feel we should have to explain ourselves. Don't assume, just ask.

"In de-escalation, ask an irate customer 'what would you like me to do?'" Give the opportunity to tell you how upset they are, and to understand. We're talking about resolving conflicts that will maintain and improve your relationships. Kaye challenged the audience to remember three things:

  • Conflict is good
  • Avoidance guarantees worse conflict
  • Succession does not equal success

Conflict, he says, is essential for a healthy business - especially a family business, where the personal stakes are higher.
What happens when you try to shove conflict under the rug? It gets worse.

Kaye outlined ten prime causes of conflict in family business. Number one on the list? Fear of conflict! "We see recurring
cycles of conflict. The conflict builds, everybody's yelling, pointing the finger. They don't resolve it but they back off. It got
too hot, too painful. And they say here we go again, or there she goes again. It happened because the whole group is
collaborating to avoid the issue. They 'solve' it by failing to pursue it, but the issues are still there. It's like two people in a
rowboat; one leans to one side, the other leans to the other to counterbalance, and next thing you know, instead of working
together to keep the boat balanced, they're both swimming. People acknowledge problems slowly. It takes a while before
the conflict becomes severe enough that people feel motivated to address it. They hoped it wouldn't get worse. The
problem is that your options to resolve decline as the problems worsen. The longer you wait, the fewer options. "
The other nine triggers of conflict in family business? In order of importance:

  1. Trust problems
  2. Fear of admitting weakness
  3. "Prisoners of the family business" (family members who come into the business reluctantly, lack the skills to perform, and are marginalized - but can't go anywhere else because he or she could never match the salary and perks anywhere else)
  4. Addictive/difficult personalities
  5. Fear of expressing praise
  6. Conflict between business growth goals and family goals
  7. Poor communication practices
  8. Incompatible goals and expectations - different family executives have conflicting visions for the future
  9. Personality and culture differences

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