Dealing with family business conflicts

With family business conflict, strike when the iron is cool

Strike while the iron is cool. The right preparation can prevent destructive outcomes and create positive resolutions, strengthening both the family and the organization.

In the many years I’ve worked with family businesses, one thing remains true: family conflicts happen, no matter how close and loving a family is. Whether the arguments are related to compensation, job duties, or succession, plenty arise, and if not managed properly, the results can range from discomfort to disaster.

I often tell family business owners that to deal with conflict they should ‘strike when the iron is cool’ – anticipate issues that can create conflict and prepare in advance before things become heated. The right preparation can prevent destructive outcomes and create positive resolutions, strengthening both the family and the organization.

Here are steps you can take to get ready for the inevitable family business conflict:

Accept it will happen

As nice as it would be to live in a constant state of kum-ba-yah, it’s an impossible reality. In a survey conducted in 2011, 44% of family businesses said they had argued about the future direction of the business, 36% had disagreed about the performance of other family members in the firm, and 21% had quarreled over whether family members active in the business were adequately consulting the rest of the family. (PwC, Kin in the Game, 2010/2011)

You will encounter tensions and conflicts in your family business. Having a “not if but when” perspective can help you keep your cool when differences do arise.

Know conflict can be good

There is a difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy conflict happens when differing approaches are openly acknowledged and addressed. The parties involved seek out processes that aim toward solutions. These sorts of conflicts can move organizations forward and strengthen relationships.

By contrast, unhealthy conflict is often caused by repressed tensions eventually boiling over. These conflicts become personal quickly. It’s not always obvious when these will erupt since they can be masked by passive aggression and artificial harmony, so it’s important to watch for underlying tension and unhealthy behaviors and get them out in the open before they spiral out of control.

Set up your offense

Although many family businesses will wait until they are in the midst of a conflict before seeking help, a smarter approach is to plan ahead. Educate your family members on proper conflict management and help them understand how to voice concerns constructively and focus on a solution instead of placing blame. Third-party family business specialists can also help with information and training ideas.

You may also want to research family business mediators in your area in case they could help before conflicts become destructive.

We all have differences with our loved ones, but in a family business environment, what’s more important is the way we work through it and the changes we make for the future. The same bonds that keep families together are the ones that can help them resolve differences in ways that ultimately contribute to their success.


To learn more about family business conflicts, or to sign up for our family business webinar, contact Daniel White using the information below.

Daniel White

Vice President
Org. Development & Family Business Services

Daniel White assists organizations with their organizational development needs, including strategic and operational planning, leadership development, succession and exit planning, and family business advising. He has worked with a wide range of industries, including construction, healthcare, manufacturing, banking, not-for-profits, and government organizations. He has also worked internationally as an organizational development consultant, serving organizations in Bolivia, Guatemala and Ghana. Prior to advising organizations, he worked in not-for-profit leadership and operations, directing projects with clients such as the US Department of State and the United Nations Population Fund.

Daniel serves as associate director of the Kansas Family Business Forum, hosted by Wichita State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship. He holds a certificate in Family Business Advising from The Family Firm Institute. Daniel also earned his Certified Exit Planner designation from BEI. This designation demonstrates he is qualified to provide comprehensive, professionally executed exit planning services. He has been published in Fast Company and several academic journals, and he has presented at a number of national conferences.

Every family business has its unique situation.
We have the experience to help.