How You Address Conflict is Key to Resolution

Two men competing in an arm wrestling competition

Conflict is as normal in interpersonal relationships as sibling rivalry is with the birth of a second child. When you combine those two in a family business, the conflict needs to be addressed and managed before it is allowed to dominate poor governance and ultimately destroy the business.

The nature of conflict
Let’s start by understanding that conflict does not have to be perceived as a bad thing. It is absolutely normal! All relationships deal with conflict to some extent – people don’t agree about everything all the time. Disagreements are conflict and the extent and subject of the disagreement determines how deeply the conflict might divide the parties. But conflict is almost never black and white, right or wrong. If you look at conflict as an opportunity for growth, it can become a welcome chance to enhance your relationship.

Defining the issue
The first step in any conflict’s resolution is to define the conflict. It is so important to be sure that there is really disagreement and not just misunderstanding. One way to do this is for the parties to digest the conflict into a sentence or two where one party agrees with the statement and the other disagrees. During the defining process, it is quite likely that the parties will find that it is really a misunderstanding.

Once the conflict is defined, then the parties need to assess how big it is. Perhaps it’s so small it’s not worth any further effort. But if not, then it requires further attention. If the conflict doesn’t get more consideration, it is likely to grow and become the pink elephant in the room. This is especially true in families where conflict resolution already has an established path…”because we’ve always done it that way,” might not be a valid resolution.

Aging conflicts rolled forward
Families have decades of history of resolving conflicts – big and small. The piling on of small conflicts can create big conflicts. I recall being in a client board meeting watching a younger brother’s face turning crimson until he finally stood up, pointed his finger at his older brother and said, “That’s the same f—— thing you did to me on our paper route.” The brothers were in their 40s.

Unfortunately, pent up conflicts tend to build and explode. Often the explosion isn’t necessarily over the current events, but over past unresolved issues. Sometimes families establish conflict resolution methods that work fine for the family at the time, but those methods don’t always transfer well to the business. While big brother owned the paper route and saw his little brother as an employee, they are now equal shareholders and peers in every way. Furthermore, little brother was really the “rainmaker.” Bringing the old method of big brother being dominant and making decisions without due process to be superimposed on the business system only buried land mines that were likely to find their mark and explode.

Family vs. Business
Family systems develop governance protocols, and those protocols are fine for the family. Deciding who gets the bathroom first, or takes out the trash, or brings what to Thanksgiving dinner fall into a decision making protocol. Sometimes it’s a monarchy where Mom or Dad decides. Maybe it’s first-come, first-served (like the bathroom). Sometimes it’s a family meeting to establish rules or make joint decisions (like Thanksgiving).

Regardless of how the family resolved issues, it is unlikely that those methods will transfer well to the business. However, like family systems, business systems also develop conflict resolution protocols for interpersonal issues. How teams are built and perform lies in large on how the team members deal with conflict. If families transfer the family protocols onto their non-family teammates, dissatisfaction is the probable outcome.

The conflict paradigm
Here is one potential protocol I have experienced that works well.

As always, step one is to define the conflict and determine if it is worthy of any further effort.

Then place your position in one of these five slots on how you’d like to address the conflict:

  • Avoid – let it go, it requires no further attention.
  • Abandon – address the issue, but then back out of any further attempts to resolve.
  • Compete – get “in the ring” and fight it out until there is a winner and loser.
  • Compromise – split it somehow so both parties can live with it, but don’t fully agree.
  • Collaborate – keep working on the conflict until all parties can agree on a workable solution.

Each of the five resolution methods has their place. There are times when avoiding a conflict is perfectly appropriate – “pick your battles.” Other times, putting the pink elephant on the table seems like a good idea, but for some reason (perhaps timing) it’s best to drop it. Some feel that any pink elephant left unresolved will remain in the room until it is ultimately addressed.

Competing to win a conflict has its place too. Consider being falsely accused, or having the majority of the investment at stake, as positions where competing for the desired result makes sense.

Compromise often offers the simplest and easiest way to resolve conflict – at least if everyone is comfortable with the outcome. Being comfortable doesn’t necessarily mean 100 percent agreement, only that the resolution can put the conflict to bed.

Collaboration is normally viewed as the preeminent method of conflict resolution and it probably yields the best result where all parties can agree on the outcome. However, it can be a tedious and cumbersome process to get there.

Furthermore, we all have our conflict default position. Some avoid conflict at all cost, while others need to win regardless. Still others see compromise as the best way out of most issues. That being said, not all conflicts fit into a person’s normal default position all the time.

Using the conflict paradigm
Share the conflict paradigm with your work group. Ask everyone what they see their default position to be. That, in itself, is a great beginning to helping resolve future conflicts – being self aware. Next get buy-in to use the paradigm to resolve issues. The next time there is conflict, after definition; ask the parties where they would like to place the conflict in the paradigm. My guess is that by doing that simple step you will be well on your way to resolution. By the way, the paradigm works well in family conflicts too.