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COMMENT: The Allegory of Conflict: Managing collisions in the family business

30th January 2015

GEN (Global Education Network) 501 faculty member Anthony Devine looks at three sources of conflict in the family business. Relationship, task and process conflict are discussed in “The Allegory of Conflict: Managing collisions in the family business.”

One of the core courses in FFI’s Global Education Network is GEN 501: Myths, Realities, and Trends in the Field of Family Enterprise. In this course we look at conflict in a way which is perhaps different to what you would anticipate. We acknowledge that conflict can be problematic, but discuss how management of conflict can harvest an environment of success in the family firm.  

Take yourself back to a time when you lived with your parents and perhaps siblings. Do you remember a time when you argued with them over something? Perhaps it was with your father over your first boyfriend or your mother over your first girlfriend. Maybe it was with a brother or a sister over who got the bigger room? The argument itself is irrelevant — the purpose is to remember a time when there was conflict apparent in your family. The reality is that conflict is present within all families and remains an integral part of the family dynamic. Without conflict in our families many would argue that our development as humans would be negatively affected (Collins, 1990; Collins & Laursen, 1994; Grotevant & Cooper, 1986; Hauser et al., 1984; Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991).   As Pramodita Sharma (2004) discusses, both ‘the family’ and ‘the business’ are complex systems.

Thus, when the two systems are embedded in the form of ‘family business,’ conflict is more likely. When we think about conflict, whether that is in the family business context or more generally, we tend to have a pre-disposed negative mindset. Put more simply we see conflict as a bad thing. Jehn and Mannix (2001) describe conflict as an “awareness on the part of the parties involved of discrepancies, incompatible wishes, or irreconcilable desires.” In their research they define conflict in three distinct ways—relationship, task and process.

The first, relationship conflict, explains how individuals within a group have affective rather than cognitive conflict with each other. Put simply, this type of conflict illustrates how individuals dislike one another through personal feelings of tension, friction or irritation.   The second, task conflict, concerns what the task is that needs to be completed. In short, the issue is about “what should be done.”  
The third, process conflict, is about how the task at hand will be achieved and who will do it. In short, individuals may have a “if you want something doing, do it yourself” mentality. Thus, process conflict is about how the task should be carried out and who should perform it.   Relationship conflict is often the most problematic and must be managed in order to ensure that it does not cause issues, which could be detrimental to the business (Sharma, 2004; Sorenson, 1991). However, the remaining two types of conflict can, if managed successfully, be used to produce positive outcomes for families.

Disagreement about what should be done (task) and how it should be achieved (process) encourage fruitful discussion within the family. This can create consensus around decision-making and in so doing interaction between family members. Devine and Shrives (2014) found that task and process conflict were apparent in the majority of the family businesses they interviewed (for most of the time). However relationship conflict frequently appeared when the family was at the beginning, or in the middle, of the succession process.  

So what does this mean for families? Ask yourself the question, what happens when two particles collide? The answer is that the kinetic energy created when the collision occurs creates new energy to produce new matter. Creating the right type of conflict in family firms (i.e., conflict that is managed well), can lead to positive outcomes in terms of growth and innovation. Thus dispelling the myth that all types of conflict are detrimental to families.  

What is does this mean for you as a practitioner? Try and understand what type of conflict exists in your client’s family. Moving forward use conflict as a way to help you client’s find common ground and encourage fruitful discussion. Most importantly conflict does not always equal crisis!  

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