Failures can occur in any family-owned business. When they do, it’s often traced back to friction within family members. Family members often treat each other with less respect than a complete stranger. This can lead to anger, hurt, resentment and a complete breakdown in communication. Getting caught up in this kind of emotional dynamics is a problem. It can often be at the expense of logical decision-making.
It’s not hard to recognise the typical signs of problems in a business. Sometimes it’s poor cash-flow, a declining balance sheet and a drop in profitability. At this point the business owner can, and often does, seek the help of an expert. This could be an accountant or marketing specialist. Someone who can assist and in these specific areas. But what of the family issues that are destroying the business? They are not so easily addressed as many are reluctant to seek help or handle these areas.
To effectively deal with issues in the family business requires various factors. It’s more than making sure the numbers stack up and documents are signed in the right manner. It requires a level of transparency and emotional wisdom that can be hard to meet. Let alone hold on to when things aren’t going right (and sometimes even when they are). Confronting family dynamics is difficult. One of the first casualities is often the ability to think clearly.
Common Causes of Conflict
Many things can affect the sustainability of a family business. But if you dig deeper than the numbers there are some fundamental issues that can make or break any family business:
We no longer have the rules of the past where handing down of businesses, assets etc was a done deal. It went to the eldest son. In today’s society we realise the eldest son may not be the best person for the job. He may not want it either! Handing over the family business can become a minefield. It’s about as sensitive as it gets. It has the ability to cause significant conflict and upset between any and all members of the family. It is often hard to achieve an outcome that is seen fair by everyone involved.
There may be family members with significant shares in the business but not working in it. They may view family members working in the business as plunderers of their legacy.
At the same time there are family members who do work in the business. They may view those who don’t work in the business as freeloaders. The resentment this causes is detrimental to the effective ownership of the business. The question on who has control represents a crucial decision.
Regardless of how well the family gets along, any number of things could trigger conflict. This could be old rivalries, new in-laws or something completely unexpected. What can work is to develop a governance system to direct and control the business. This will help to reduce the risk of resentment and tension.
A governance system will, among other things –
- Provide clarity on roles, rights and responsibilities of family members, owners and business members.
- Get the right people together at the right time, to discuss the right things.
- Provide a means to resolve differences and minimise conflict.
There are many combined emotions facing the family when they work together. Envy, though, can be very destructive and is often a major contributing factor to conflict.
There are ways to ensure a more effective outcome for both the family and the business. It is crucial that dialogue is transparent. Individual expectations must be understood. Difficult subjects should be kept on the table.
The Good News
When there is conflict in a family business, most of the problems are caused by individuals within the family. The good news is they do have a say in their problem and they have the power to alter the outcome.
Achieving this may mean working with an expert. One who appreciates the dynamics of family businesses. This consultant must have a high level of skill and understanding of the family business. He or she must be prepared to go the hard yards. This will ensure the best outcome for the family business and its key stakeholders.