The Need for Conflict
My father told me you can’t have progress without friction. When I go to the trusty Thesaurus (that is only a click away when I am writing my blog) there are many synonyms for “friction” including: resistance, abrasion, hostility, antagonism, conflict, strife.
If you’re leading a family business these words would seem to be terms you work to avoid. However if you can’t have progress without friction (my dad seemed to get smarter as I got older and the line makes sense) then how does the business progress if you avoid friction? The key of course is to pick the synonym. Hostility, antagonism, strife – definitely out, but resistance and conflict, in the right environment they are in fact necessary not just for progress, but perhaps even for survival.
How do you have good conflict? You need to create an atmosphere where people feel safe when they express their opinion. They trust their colleagues will not attack them personally when they express an idea or contribute to a discussion by expressing an alternative opinion. Trust may be the most important word when talking about relationships in a family business and it is the underlying requirement to create an environment for productive conflict. How do you develop trust?
Clear communications, including formal communication lines and a recognition that there are informal lines too; ensure everyone has a clear understanding and buy-in of strategic goals. This of course mandates that the company has strategic goals and is not just chasing markets based on the president’s whim or the reading of latest headlines.
I have sat in meetings where brothers physically attack each other, it can be quite disconcerting, but if they have “communicated” this way since childhood (and no one tells mother) and, at the end of the discussion, there is agreement on a course of action then you have conflict that results in progress. Of course conflict does not have to mean fisticuffs and usually doesn’t, but open discussion without reserve is a sign of trust and confidence in your fellow managers; it means that a deep examination is completed before important decisions are made. It is the responsibility of the business leader to develop the environment where trust and respect for others, in decision making roles allows them to safely express their opinion and argue for their position while colleagues try to sway the result to another position. When that happens strategic planning, including transition planning, can take place, opportunities will be recognized, threats prepared for and the competitive edge that family businesses can enjoy shines through.