Cumberland Island, an isolated barrier island off Georgia, became a national park 30 years ago. Its primary inhabitants are sea turtles, shore birds, armadillos and wild horses, and its eastern coast is reportedly the longest stretch of undeveloped beachfront acreage in the eastern United States. One of the most spectacular island activities is a naturalist tour of the island from a vintage army jeep. During one such tour, my party came upon large areas of jungle-like marsh that was blackened by a huge fire. Our guide explained that most devastating fires are easily prevented through controlled burning. Small, carefully contained fires, he said, remove underbrush that builds up over time. If the marshes are not thinned out periodically, the jungle-like terrain will become kindling for a major, possibly uncontrollable, blaze. Controlled burning, we were told, removes the dangerous fuel while leaving the ecosystem intact.

I realized that the same thing occurs in healthy family businesses. All families and businesses experience conflict and those that survive practice the equivalent of controlled burns. By exposing and addressing simmering conflicts in managed situations, you can prevent the buildup of resentments that can burst out unexpectedly and result in a conflagration that destroys careers, relationships and companies.

However, the goal is not simply an absence of conflict within a family business. The objective is rather to be able to deal with emotional, highly charged and potentially difficult matters in such a way that respect and dignity for all individuals reign supreme. Numerous techniques and actions can help achieve a “safe” conflict. One must, for instance, avoid focusing on past history and replaying old tapes.

It is also vital to control conflict. By allowing and encouraging conflicts to play out before they fester, you can build a stronger family business. Don’t wait until the underbrush grows so thick and flammable, and issues get to be so big, that one small problem ignites a massive fire. Timing is crucial in conflict management. How do you know when to ignite a controlled burn? The default choice: as soon as conflict develops. Whenever issues surface that excite opposition among family members. 

External events must also guide timing. Just as preventive brush fires are lit only on windless days (preferably after a rain), you should never urge conflicts into the open when the executive offices are already stressed. Save the conflict management for another day. Timing isn’t the only concern, however. The fundamental rule of successful conflict management is to focus on the problem, issue or behavior — not the individuals. That means seeking solutions, not blame, and trying to change processes before changing people.

As difficult as these sessions can be, the payoff is huge. By embracing this philosophy you will eventually rear a generation of leaders who find it natural to discuss problematic or emotional issues in a controlled manner. When instilled at an early age, conflict management can be as natural as breathing.

As Larry Bossidy, former vice chairman of General Electric, once said, “Tension and conflict are necessary ingredients of a successful organization.” The idea is not to live in a perfect world, free of conflict. The objective is to prevent the buildup of years of disagreement and anger that, if unmanaged, can burst out and blacken the family and company’s future.

If your business needs help managing conflict and developing a culture of healthy conflict resolution we can help. 

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