Family Business Matters 09/02 09:46
A Duty to Disagree
How you handle conflict could determine if your business stagnates or moves
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
Conflict in general, and particularly conflict in a family business, can be
disastrous. It brings tension to the workplace and to family gatherings,
affects relationships between individuals and causes people to withdraw or lash
out. The behaviors exhibited and statements made during conflict can have
lasting effects on future generations; many family businesses can look back to
a split between siblings or parents as the basis for their current business or
Knowing the consequences of conflict, it might be tempting to keep
disagreements bottled up. Staying quiet, not rocking the boat or sweeping it
under the rug might seem like the easiest way to keep the family and business
together. The problem is, those strategies almost never work in the long run.
Consider these reasons why voicing disagreement -- sooner rather than later --
is a better strategy.
UNSPOKEN DISAGREEMENTS BOIL OVER
When a family member or business partner disagrees, and he doesn't have a
vehicle for voicing that discontent, the issue often lodges in his psyche.
Think of such silent disagreements like a drop of mercury in a thermometer.
Each subsequent, unvoiced point of contention raises the mercury level a bit
more. When the thermometer gets too hot, the mercury bursts from the top,
shattering the thermometer and spilling toxic liquid on the table.
In conflict, when the offended party finally bursts, the situation creates a
mess for the family and the business. Forcing a tough conversation early may
prevent the conflict from reaching a boiling point and creating more damage.
UNEXPRESSED DIFFERENCES HURT THE BUSINESS
Agriculture is an old profession. Yet, agriculture businesses have changed
dramatically in the last century. Change, however, involves upending the status
quo, which can be difficult to watch if the status quo has worked for many
When "tried and true" clashes with "new and improved," our feelings, roles
and even traditions can appear under attack. But if family members don't find a
way to challenge the current state of affairs, the business may not adapt and
survive. Business participants should feel obligated to find ways to evaluate
new ideas, different strategies and alternative practices.
UNSTATED OBJECTIONS SEND MIXED MESSAGES
Family businesses often involve people who weren't a part of the original
family structure -- in-laws and employees. The spouse of your sibling or adult
child, or the non-related staff on your team didn't experience the same
practices around conflict that you did in your immediate family. And you better
believe they're watching how you handle the tension!
If you pretend there's no conflict, that everything is okay, and that
disagreement is bad, the result will be an underlying tension with lots of
behind-the-scenes whispering and gossip. In short, you will experience the
opposite of your intent. Conflicts on the farm will not fade away, but will
become what everyone talks about in twos and threes, precisely because no one
is admitting disagreement at a larger level. A disconnect exists between "the
talk" (we get along all the time) and "the walk" (we have disagreements).
Creating a sense of responsibility to get disagreements on the table sends the
message that you acknowledge conflict and you want to work through it.
Conflict is inevitable and invariably difficult, but it can bear fruit. If
handled well, conflict can move the business forward in trying new approaches.
Disagreement properly voiced can provide a relief valve for the pressure
building between family members. And differences appropriately acknowledged and
processed can foster a better culture. Picking such fruit should be an
obligation of every family business owner.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Lance Woodbury writes family business columns for both DTN
and our sister magazine, "The Progressive Farmer." He is a Garden City, Kansas,
author, consultant and professional mediator with more than 20 years'
experience specializing in agriculture and closely-held businesses. Email
questions for this column to Lance@agprogress.com. Find all of DTN farm
business columnists online at
Copyright 2016 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.
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