Periodic “Perspectives” offer tips by email on addressing conflict effectively.
The fallacy of founder immortality
In the last few weeks, we have heard about the succession planning of two family business titans: LVMH head Bernard Arnault and media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Arnault received kudos for preparing his five children to be leaders in the business. And yet… last year, at age 73, he convinced the LVMH board to raise the mandatory retirement age for chief executive and chairman from 75 to 80. And he has recently stated that his successor might come from within the family – or might not.
Murdoch, at age 92, has just handed over day-to-day oversight of the business to his son. But the question of who controls the trust that votes on the family’s shares on Rupert’s death remains open. And reports are that his four eldest children disagree on that point.
Perhaps both men have fallen for the fallacy of founder immortality. Many families and their businesses have suffered damaging conflict when this fallacy enabled inaction or only partial action.
How to counter it? Three ideas for you to consider:
1. Start to work on an exit plan early – decades before anyone expects it to be activated. Unwelcome surprises do happen. Review and amend as needed.
2. Honor and preserve the founder’s legacy – while the founder is alive! Videos, publications, philanthropy, be creative. But don’t allow the founder to interfere when it’s time to pass on leadership. Allow for change in the business (including the sale of some or all of it), and in the family.
3. Prioritize a positive next chapter for the founder. When stepping down from leading the business feels like one step into the grave, it’s hard to let go.
The paradox of authenticity
We have heard a good bit lately about the importance of being “authentic”, your true self. Fake, misleading, disingenuous – all of these are discouraged. Being caught in the act of pretending to be authentic can escalate conflict or even create conflict where none was present.
What do you do in the situation where you find yourself in deep disagreement with someone with whom you have an important relationship: a member of your extended family or your family enterprise? When you genuinely cannot fathom how that person embraces a viewpoint so different from yours – on a personal, political, or business matter. What if you think their view is appalling?
Does authenticity require you to denounce that other person? I’d argue “no”. Not necessary and not productive. On the flip side, if you can’t endorse or accept the opinion, don’t fake it. Fake agreement or acquiescence isn’t likely to help in the long run.
Instead, you can be authentic in your disagreement with that opinion (without disdain). Try to tap into your respect for the person, or your respect for the relationship you have, or your respect for the system that you are both a part of. Those three are not the same. You may value at least one of them enough to be both authentic in your disagreement on the issue and genuine in your interest in engaging with the other person. With all the openness, curiosity, and compassion you can muster.
The courage and kindness of reality checks
Unrealistic expectations create fertile ground for conflict – in family enterprises, wealthy families, and the institutions and individuals who serve them. Wishful thinking thwarts planning and invites harmful, unnecessary conflict.
It’s better to face reality – and then deal with it appropriately. For example, founders who refuse to face their own mortality may need support as they consider their vulnerability. They definitely need to be brave enough to engage in estate planning and succession planning.
Wealthy people need to face the fact that they will die (using that word, and not a euphemism, purposely!) Completing estate plans – including end-of-life wishes — is an act of kindness to their family.
Is the family growing faster than the family wealth? Pretending otherwise won’t solve that challenge. Accepting the facts and making any needed adjustments is a better course.
Shortcomings need to be understood and addressed. If a family member is not up to the task that they are expected to perform, that needs to be said and decisions made (additional support? moving on?) Avoiding reality and allowing that person to believe that all is well does harm.
Fantasy can be fun in fiction and games. Families and their businesses deserve the courage and kindness of reality checks.
Sunrises and sunsets …
and beginnings and endings. Seasons change: we’ve just passed an equinox. College basketball fans in the US are nearing the end of the season with March Madness finals in a few days. Major League Baseball starts a new regular season today.
Conflicts? Most of the time we can tell when they begin – or when they degrade from good (creative and collaborative) to bad (negative and potentially damaging).
Endings can be harder to define, especially in valued interpersonal relationships. A clear agreement to end the conflict- easy. Lingering frustration, anxiety, paralysis… all of these do harm.
When the end of a conflict is not obvious, try to find a way to bring it to a close in some way: we agree to disagree on this one point yet remain connected; we will revisit this challenge at a future date that we schedule now; we are committed to make changes that need to occur to allow us to resolve this conflict.
Something that will create an ending. A sunset on this specific problem. So that a sunrise becomes possible.
never having to say you’re sorry.
You may know this line from the 1970 film Love Story.
Over fifty years later, it remains one of the worst ideas ever uttered about building, nurturing, and repairing valued relationships. Love comes in many flavors, of course: romantic love, familial love, the love in deep friendships. In all of those contexts, and others, being able to admit that you made a mistake is crucial to the health of the relationship. We should be at the other end of the spectrum from “never”. When we are in the wrong, we should be quick to say, “I’m sorry.” Or: I goofed; I messed up; I made a mistake; oops; I blew it….
Any phrase will do, spoken with sincerity (even awkwardness!)
And sooner rather than later.
In-person gatherings and online meetings
We are now coming into the time of year for traditional family gatherings.
For many years, these in-person celebrations have been the time to tackle difficult conversations and make important decisions for legacy families. And “tackle” is the operative word. These conversations were – in more than a few minds – supposed to resolve everything in one sitting.
During the depths of the pandemic, we learned that online meetings could be quite effective – even for less tech-savvy family members. In fact, when negative conflict might erupt, discussions held online have significant advantages over those held in-person.
If your family or a client’s family will be gathering in person, savor that opportunity. Soak up the shared experience. Consider planting some seeds for next year. How to get the best of all options. Prioritize human connections when gathering in-person – whatever time of year. Take advantage of the benefits of periodic, online meetings. Reset with changes that can serve families better, with more of the positive types of conflict and less of the negative kind.
Listen to more on this topic in Episode 203 of my weekly podcast, Crafting Solutions to Conflict, wherever you get your podcasts or here: http://bit.ly/3GFVraj. Or give me a call – I enjoy a good chat about conflict!
Speaking of foundations…
The likelihood of keeping conflict good (and not bad or ugly) increases dramatically if interpersonal relationships are strong and resilient. Building and nurturing solid foundations will help. How? Start with the simple things – and commit to keeping at them!
Make it a priority to have regular communications, even if brief. Learn how to communicate effectively with different people.
Acknowledge and respect the opinions of everyone involved. If someone is not a decision maker, but will be affected by the decision, don’t blindside them. It helps to give a reason for a decision – especially an unpopular one. If we don’t like it, but understand it, there may be disappointment but less frustration. We should apologize when we make mistakes, accept others’ apologies gracefully, and let go of annoyance about someone’s failure to apologize when we think they should.
Over time, the foundation of relationships can strengthen or crumble. It takes effort to nourish them. The effort will be worth it if a conflict becomes an opportunity to work collaboratively and creatively – and not a downturn toward destruction of valued relationships.
Robert Frost famously wrote: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Here’s a useful parallel from the conflict perspective: “Good boundaries encourage good conflict.” I think of “good conflict” as the creative and collaborative kind: we have our differences and we work together to prevent them from damaging our relationship, our family enterprise, our wealth.
Good boundaries? Three key characteristics define them. First, the importance of having them at all is recognized. Second, they are clear. Third, they are maintained.
For example, the Three Circle Model is well-known in the family business arena. I can be a family member, an owner, and a person who actively works in the business. All three, or two, or one.
It’s helpful, first, to understand that each role has boundaries. And, second, to consider how clear those boundaries are to everyone involved. Finally, change inevitably affects the family enterprise, so maintaining those boundaries – and adjusting as necessary – will benefit the family and the business.
Good conflict? When one person (or more!) is about to step over the line, we can stop and work it out together. What about the boundary isn’t serving us well? Perhaps the importance of the boundary has been underestimated. Perhaps it isn’t clear. Or perhaps it has become outdated. And if the “trespass” has already occurred, we can take a look at the situation from a boundary perspective and find a way to address the challenge effectively.
Understanding ADR: What is and – isn’t
ADR and its relationship to my work can be confusing. And that confusion could get in the way of finding help for a challenging situation.
So, here we go with some bare bone basics. (I am fascinated by conflict: let me know if you want to talk about it!) I work as a mediator, conflict coach, and facilitator.
Alternative Dispute Resolution is a bit of a misnomer. Legal disputes are decided through some “alternative” process in the vast majority of cases, whether or not they begin on track to a trial. The best-known ADR processes are mediation and arbitration; both involve an impartial person (sometimes more than one), who may be called a neutral. A mediator helps the people involved reach a resolution that they find acceptable. The mediator does not decide for them and cannot force a resolution. Preserving, improving, or restoring the ongoing relationships of the people involved is an essential element of my mediation work. Families often choose mediation when they have a conflict that has not crystallized into a dispute that could lead to court or when the issues may not be legal ones at all.
Unfortunately, plenty of people who are not routinely exposed to ADR forget that mediation and arbitration are not the same. An arbitrator hears evidence presented and imposes a binding decision, in the form of an award, which is very difficult to overturn.
When families or their advisors fear that I will impose a decision, or judge them in some way, they may miss the opportunity for a positive mediation experience.
As a conflict coach, I support the efforts of individuals to get better at handling conflict. Conflict coaching is not a traditional ADR process. When I serve as a mediator, however, I do include at least some conflict coaching with the individual participants. Other times, my work as a conflict coach is separate from mediation.
A facilitator helps two or more people have a productive discussion about an important topic. They may have different perspectives, but they typically would not describe themselves as having a conflict. A professional facilitator has no stake in the outcome of the discussion. When I am asked to work as a facilitator, a family may be intending to prevent a nasty conflict from developing. My experience as a mediator and conflict coach helps me to be a better facilitator.
Not sure which of these options could be helpful to you or an individual client or client family? Let’s talk!
Great Ideas – new and old
Earlier this month, I chaired a roundtable discussion on addressing and preventing conflict in a family enterprise at the Institute for Family Governance in New York City. It was good to be once again in the company of thoughtful advisors, family office leaders, and family enterprise members for a full day of presentations and discussions (just before the latest COVID spike there.) Our group’s conversation echoed – and amplified – some themes that we heard throughout the day.
First, a new idea: a welcome and growing recognition of the importance of ongoing work within legacy families, family enterprises, and family offices on the subject of handling conflict effectively. This idea rejects the belief that one big family retreat will lead to a kumbaya conclusion and peace will reign forevermore. That’s unrealistic. No one can do it in one day or one long weekend. It takes practice and effort and learning over time.
Other, more familiar, concepts?
Set expectations – well before a problem erupts. Good ideas are more effective as good policies.
Recognize that families and their family enterprises necessarily evolve over time. Any important documents, whether or not they are legally binding, need to be reviewed periodically, and revised as needed.
Disagreements are to be expected, and even welcomed. They don’t need to be nasty or destructive. Burying them is rarely a wise move.
Finally, the process of communicating is valuable in and of itself, whatever the topic may be. Frequent, scheduled check-ins allow families to build a connection before – as well as during and after – challenging times.
Great ideas, new and old!
Hitting the Pause Button
Life moves fast. Speed in and of itself is prized in many contexts. From the perspective of preventing and addressing bad or ugly conflict, taking a pause can have great benefits. (I’ve written here before about good, bad, and ugly conflict.) First, we can stop ourselves from leaping to conclusions about why someone else has said or done – or not said or not done – something: just pause and think before taking the leap. Second, when we know trouble is brewing, we may do nothing at all (usually not a good plan), or we may jump into action. Instead of that jump, pause and consider the factors that will increase the likelihood that your initiative will be effective (who, what, when, where, how to set up for success.) Third, in the heat of the moment, take a pause when you are tempted to react with snark or anger. (If you must, congratulate yourself – silently – on your quick wit.)
Hitting the pause button can allow our more thoughtful and rational self time to catch up and win over our reactive self, and help preserve valued relationships.
The Three Rs
When you are engaged in some type of conflict resolution, whether it is one-on-one direct negotiation or mediation with an impartial third party, your perspective on conflict matters. Consider The Three Rs as ideas to increase your chances of success. First, retain and demonstrate Respect for the other person. Obviously, you do not agree, and you may not like the other person. Find at least some measure of respect for them and their interests. Second, be Reasonable — mostly. Evaluate your arguments and those of the other person through accurate information, careful analysis, and common sense. But remember that we all have emotions that can affect us deeply. Acknowledge them to yourself – and perhaps to the other person – without becoming overwhelmed by them. Third be Realistic. Achieving the perfect answer that fully satisfies both people is a lofty goal. Better to look for a solution and not for the solution. More than two people involved? These ideas apply there, too, and may be even more important to adopt.
Embracing the gray
Not talking about hair color, or dreary winter weather! Embracing the gray area – the place between black and white, where opportunities to find common ground lie, isn’t always easy, but can be worth the effort. Our brains are programmed to make quick decisions: friend or foe, yes or no. We would become overwhelmed if very decision required intense analysis. But we can get ourselves into trouble, unnecessarily, if we limit ourselves to binary thinking. If I am certain that I am completely right – and you have a different opinion – then you must be completely wrong. The gray area contains subtle shades. It can be a place of creativity and brainstorming. A decision-making process that embraces the gray might lead to an excellent answer that would never have emerged with a black or white mindset.
Or the decision reached may be a bit gray itself. It’s a “good enough” answer. Not terrible and not perfect – but in the middle. It solves the problem sufficiently. Good enough for now or for the amount of time and energy that’s reasonable to spend on it. One that everyone can live with. And far better than estrangement or continued destructive conflict.
Embrace the gray – it could be the right place to be.
Old habits and new opportunities
Before we start, let’s stop: did you think bad habits when you heard old habits? Lots of us would. And yet, I want to suggest that habits come in three flavors, just as conflict does. Good, bad, and ugly. As the new year begins, it’s a logical time to look for new opportunities in how we handle conflict. Two suggestions: pick one habit that’s negative and try to do less of it. AND, just as important, pick one habit that’s positive and try to do more of that one. You might even form a new habit of taking on pairs of good and bad conflict habits throughout the year. Listen to this week’s podcast, Episode 158, for more ideas on this theme, wherever you get your podcasts or here: https://bit.ly/32Y3L3r.
Dispute, conflict, or both?
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is a term that describes processes that can be used as an alternative to litigation. Many approaches fall under that umbrella, with arbitration and mediation being the best-known. A serious car accident involving strangers can create a dispute around that specific event: questions of liability, causation, and damages.
In contrast, a destructive challenge in an ongoing, valued relationship is more aptly called a (negative) conflict. Legacy families, family enterprises, and businesses built on more than profit can risk lasting damage to relationships from prolonged conflict.
A dispute over a particular issue may bring to the surface a barely simmering or nearly boiling conflict. To focus on only the dispute of the moment is short-sighted. Far better to address the underlying conflict as well.
An ounce of prevention …
is worth a pound of cure. Benjamin Franklin is credited with coining this phrase, in the context of comparing fire prevention costs to the costs of dealing with the consequences of fire. You probably hear more about conflict resolution than conflict prevention. But Ben was on to something: preventing negative conflict is far better than attempting to “cure” it (often quite imperfectly) with conflict resolution. How, you ask? Embrace positive, creative, collaborative conflict. If the situation deteriorates, lean toward taking action sooner instead of later. Take the long view of your legacy family, family enterprise, or closely-held business. Understand what success means to you.
And save some gold: your money and your valued relationships.
April 2 is Reconciliation Day
Each year, April 2 is recognized as Reconciliation Day. The idea was launched by Ann Landers, the late advice columnist, who created an annual tradition for friends and family to extend – and accept – olive branches. Even a long-standing conflict can be resolved, with or without professional help. Listen (7 minutes) to this week’s podcast episode (Number 118), Embracing Reconciliation Day as a catalyst, here: https://bit.ly/3fxSCKQ . The hopeful story of how the day came about is in the April 1, 2019 episode (5 minutes): https://bit.ly/2PnuhMO.
Conflict: Good, Bad, and Ugly…
Conflict is an inevitable, and normal, part of life. We will never all see eye-to-eye on every topic. And we can benefit from those different perspectives. I like to think of conflict as coming in three flavors: good, bad, and ugly. Starting with ugly and working our way back: ugly conflict is the type on display in the television series Succession. It’s deeply destructive, public, and – to many people – completely fascinating to watch from the outside. Fear of ugly conflict prevents many of those we serve from dealing with bad conflict; that approach is counterproductive, at a minimum. Bad conflict is negative, but it’s not necessarily permanently damaging – if it is addressed effectively. And then there is good conflict. Good conflict happens when the respectful clash of ideas can lead to collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Yet shutting down good conflict out of fear it will become bad conflict prevents all those positive outcomes. The best course of action: embrace good conflict, deal with bad conflict, and prevent ugly conflict.
Reconnecting and strengthening…
are my goals for 2021. The last year was tough for everyone. I have missed connecting with other professionals in the ways that we did so easily pre-pandemic and I have appreciated connecting with many of you in new and creative ways. Flexibility is a key component in my work as a conflict professional, along with continuing to learn and grow.
In fact, in 2020, I added to my skills as a conflict professional by becoming a Certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® Practitioner. In 2019, my commitment to continuing education included becoming a Certified CINERGY ® Conflict Management Coach. And in 2018, I learned how to host a weekly podcast, launching Crafting Solutions to Conflict just over two years ago.