Difficult Conversations and Family Business: A Challenging Mix

Many families I know like to keep the peace. It’s entirely understandable because family arguments feel like they shake the foundation of everything that has been built before, like denigrating the legacy.

Avoiding arguments may be wise, but it doesn’t mean that a family can’t have difficult conversations. In a work setting, people have difficult conversations all the time. They give and receive feedback, share their diverse ideas in a constructive manner, struggle with co-worker incompatibility, and have civil conversations with managers they can’t stand. You can find any or all of these examples in a well-run work place. Having constructive disagreements is part of doing a job well. If you don’t do it well–by fighting with a coworker, yelling at a customer, or hurling epithets at your boss–you will likely lose your job.

Why is a family organization so different? There are several key differences.

  1. The family is stuck with each other. You can’t fire an unruly family member, even though you may want to. You can’t even make them sell their stock if they don’t want to.
  2. A family can’t hire new talent for the family. Whoever is born or married in is what you get.
  3. You can never escape your history. It’s hard to change the family’s perspective of an individual if they have had spectacular failures, rants, or outbursts. People will still remember you as the one who had that crazy freak out at the family meeting in 1999. It takes a lot of work and consistency to move past those historical perspectives.
  4. Hurt feelings can last a long time. Family business means you’ve seen everyone at their worst. Just like they remember your least mature moments, you may also have a hard time letting go of theirs. It can be tough to move beyond getting horribly teased by all your cousins when you were 15.

How does a family take the heat out of difficult conversations so that they can be constructive?

  1. Define what you have in common and make decisions that are based on that. For example, create a 10 year vision for your family. What kind of relationships and education do you want for your family, and what kind of leaders? Determine what values you have in common as a family and then figure out how to put your vision into action and live your values.
  2. Implement a formal process to bring forward unique and challenging ideas. Explore these topics. Questions on redemption, management, corporate governance, or dividends are all good questions, despite what motives may really be behind the question.
  3. Build working relationships through the use of committees or task forces.
  4. Don’t put undue pressure on individuals to feel a close family bond with their 2nd cousins one removed.

Why bother?

These difficult conversations, if avoided now, will come back to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune time–a wedding, a board meeting, or a family retreat. Each generation has a responsibility to manage their issues now. Any deferment makes it 10 times more difficult to resolve once it has been passed down to the next generation. It is much harder for a generation of 25 to deal with the inherited conflict than it is for their parent’s generation with only 6 in it.

It’s better to take difficult conversations head on, with a spirit of curiosity and good will, rather than trying to avoid it. Implementing a formal process shows the family that they don’t have to bring up their issues in the board room or at the cousin’s wedding because the family has a proven process to manage these difficult conversations at the right time and place.

Avoiding difficult conversations doesn’t make the problems go away. Having the courage to talk about challenging things is an important part of strengthening family relationships and the family business.

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