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Resolving Family Business Conflicts

By November 29, 2008July 12th, 2023Conflict Management4 min read

Too often, sweeping potential conflict under the rug is what happens in family enterprises. Rather than respectfully addressing problems that could cause strife, they are ignored and allowed to fester until some combination of events makes them impossible to overlook. By then the conflict may be so intense and deep-rooted, or the business may be in such a delicate and precarious position, that resolution is much more difficult.

But any method of conflict resolution is probably OK as long as the solution you choose doesn’t belittle or demean anyone or force a winner-and-loser outcome. There is one simple, widely used method to resolve common conflict that goes by the acronym DESC. The letters stand for “Describe, Express, Specify, and Consequences.” Here’s a scenario that shows how you can apply DESC to resolve a simple conflict within your family enterprise.

A family business member has consistently been arriving late to meetings. Other family members are annoyed with the behavior, teamwork is deteriorating, and important decisions are being delayed. As the leader of the business, you are expected to do something about it. In fact, given what you know about the risk of delaying resolution, you really want to do something about it and move on. How can you best correct the situation?

Describe. Arrange a private meeting with the guilty party and start by describing the other person’s actions and or behavior objectively. Try to quantify the concerns, and avoid judgmental, absolute terms such as “You always…” and “You are never…” For example, do not say “You are always late to the meeting.” Instead say something like “You were 30 minutes late to last week’s board meeting. That was the fourth time this year.”

Express. Express your concern about the consequences of the behavior on the business and family. Keep it simple, and keep it believable. Don’t say, “You are destroying the company.” Instead, say “The problem with you coming in late is that it reduces the amount of time we can spend on important decisions, and it conveys to other board members the message that the meetings aren’t important.”

Specify. Specify the behavior you want. Be as specific as possible. Example: “It is critical that you be here on time when we call a family board meeting.”

Consequences. Cite the consequences that will occur when the behavior is changed. Emphasize the opportunities or benefits that might otherwise be lost. Also cite positive consequences. For example: “When you show up on time, we will get through the meeting on time, resulting in a more productive teambuilding and morale-enhancing experience. If you continue to be late, people will believe that it’s not important enough for them to be there, or that they’re only there because they have to be.”

In real life, your conflict resolution may not go as smoothly as this. You shouldn’t attempt to run a DESC script when people are screaming and yelling, although you can still adhere to the same principles. Just wait until things cool off, and then try it.

Prior to attempting to solve any conflict, it is critical that you listen first to fully understand the situation. Then structure your message into a DESC format. Don’t just blast away because someone came late again to the board meeting. First, ask why the person was late. It’s always a good idea when there’s conflict to take a deep breath, rehearse what you need to do, and then gather information.

At times like this, I like to recall Aristotle’s comment on anger: “Anybody can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power. That is not easy.”

You’ll be better at conflict resolution if you pay close attention to your own state of mind. When you are in an extreme mood, avoid making any promises or even making phone calls, writing letters, or sending e-mails. Often, when you are angry, it’s tempting to pen a stinging message. That’s the worst time to do that.

Instead stop, pay attention to your own emotions, gather information, and run a DESC script. Good luck!