BusinessDesk is proud to publish The Reset series, made in association with our trusted commercial partners and designed to supercharge your business in 2021. In this article, Philip Pryor, founder of Family Business Central, gives advice on managing conflict in family enterprises.


Welcome to 2021. As business people we still have some challenges in front of us that are going to test our creativeness, adaptability and patience.

One issue that never seems to go away is conflict and disruption in the business. This is true regardless of whether it is a small family enterprise or a major listed corporation. Most of us tend to deal with conflict in one of two ways: put our head in the sand and ignore it, hoping it will go away, or actively manage it.  

Ironically, there is much subtlety and nuance around conflict, and if we can get our head around this, we will be much better at managing it.

It’s very rare that someone starts a conflict just for the sake of it – just for fun, if you like. There is usually a good reason (from their perspective) for their behaviour. (If you do have someone who does enjoy starting conflict, you need to quietly move them on as quickly as you can – they are dangerous to your business).

We actually need a level of creative conflict in our business for it to grow and thrive.  We want people to debate ideas, disagree and give their reasons; we want robust conversations that get to the heart of things. This is the seedbed of new ideas, ways forward, creativity and innovation. There is nothing worse for a business (and us) if everyone just says ‘yes’ and never gives their opinion. However, we still need to manage this; it cannot be allowed to get personal or for people to feel abused. It is creative and, when done well, enables huge possibilities to be explored.

This creative conflict is good – manage it well and everyone benefits. Just google ‘groupthink’ to see the downside of people not speaking up and you’ll see what I mean.

There are two types of conflict, though, that can have a negative impact on a business, its workplace and its personnel. The first is conflict that is brand new between two people; it is surprising and not normal. The second is what I call old conflict – that is, tension that everyone knows is there, and it resurfaces. People observing it experience a ‘here we go again’ feeling. In all businesses, family owned or otherwise, it takes a lot of work – and usually independent support – to reduce and change the level of entrenched old conflict.

In this article, though, I want to talk about new conflict, because if we address this, we can eliminate a lot of workplace tension quickly and easily.

New conflict has to be addressed fast. Because it is new, something will have happened to cause it. Something will have changed, either in the work environment or with one of the parties involved.

Usually, this type of conflict involves well-meaning people and happens inadvertently – sparked by a misunderstanding that gets out of hand, perhaps, or a disagreement over style that is taken too far, or a clash of roles and responsibilities.  

If new conflict is allowed to continue, people become entrenched in their positions, relationships get badly damaged and you have a real problem on your hands. You could even end up with formal complaints of bullying. It is important to act.

Start by talking separately to the individuals involved. Ask questions around why they see the situation the way they do, and what behavioural changes they would want to occur. Don’t let them stay with meaningless terms such as ‘better communication’ or ‘team work’. We actually don’t know what they mean by that in any detail. Explore what they mean so we can understand. Get them to be explicit about the actions they would say is ‘good teamwork’ or ‘good communication’  A way of looking at this is to assume you are making a video of ‘good communication’ or ‘good teamwork’, what actions and behaviours would you see on the video? Be mindful that this is a very powerful style of questioning so go gently, but challenge the assumptions they make about the conflict and the other person involved. Sometimes such discussions involve clarifying roles and responsibilities, and getting agreement on these and writing them down.  

A great deal of your job in a situation such as this involves listening carefully to each of the parties – not just to what they say but also to the emotion behind their words.   If you can do this well, 80 percent of the conflict will get resolved right then and there, as sometimes all the person wants is to be genuinely heard.

When listening to each staff member involved in a new conflict, your job is to:

1.  Stay quiet while they talk about their emotions. This may take 15-30 minutes. It is not a waste of time – it is a huge investment. They will appreciate that you listened to them.

2.  Don’t amplify their emotions or, conversely, belittle or minimise them.

3.  Acknowledge them back to them, usually with phrases such as, “You clearly feel very strongly about this” and “I can see this is something that is hugely important to you”.

4.  Don’t get freaked out if they cry. And again, don’t amplify their emotions. Just sit there respectfully, offer them tissues and listen quietly to what they are saying.

5.  Don’t confuse emotion with logic – they are completely different. So, if someone is emotional, don’t come in all ‘logical’ by saying things like, “But, you know, we hit all our targets last year”, or, “But your job description says…”. There is a time and a place to discuss this and now is not one of them.  

We tend to completely underestimate the importance and power of the skills involved in leading such a discussion. While you may not feel as though you have ‘achieved’ something, for the staff member it can be a hugely empowering thing that relieves them of some of the tension because they have been heard. You may need to talk more, at a later time, about details, facts, information etc, and that is fine, but by managing the emotions effectively, you allow space to get down to the issues, which, usually, are pretty easy to resolve.

Good luck with it. These are important skills to have. I am always available if you want to discuss any of this further at philip@familybusinesscentral.com

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