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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 
family structure.

   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.


   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.


   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. 


   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 Find all of DTN farm 
business columnists online at



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