A feud can break out in even the nicest families.
An outsider might imagine that people involved in such fights are greedy horrible people, but as Blair Trippe, Managing Partner of Continuity Family Business Consulting says, “Typically, the people in one of these horrific family fights are nice, normal people. It’s just that their identity is at stake and when a conflict began escalating, it took on a life of its own and they couldn’t stop.”
What if one of your clients is starting down that path?
Maybe your client doesn’t respect his uncle’s leadership. Maybe your client believes that his cousin’s quest for market share is endangering the company’s solvency. Maybe his brother bullied him since they were children, and now the brother is doing it in spades.
There are countless possible conflicts, but whatever your client’s is, let’s just stipulate that it’s big, painful and threatening. You, as a trusted advisor, want to avoid an escalation that can destroy the family business and the family relationships.
The Best Cure Is Prevention
Ideally, parents in a family business have taught the children that they can’t always be right and that compromise and communication are part of the family culture. The children know that they’re responsible to something bigger than themselves.
Ideally, they’ve also grown up with shared values, shared memories and tight-knit emotional bonds that have been nurtured over a lifetime. Maybe they were brought up, as I was in the Sheraton Hotel family, that: “We never wash our dirty linen in public.”
Ah, but we’re not in an ideal world, and you have to play the hand you’re given. What can you do?
Take Stock of the Situation
Family quarrels are among the most common reasons that 70 percent of family businesses won’t make it to the next generation. An unchecked family quarrel can be an existential threat to the family and the family business.
When people become emotionally invested in a conflict and feel their identity is at stake, it becomes ever harder to pull back. The forces pulling the family apart can become as intractable as ethnic or religious conflicts.
Inject Some Realism
One of the first things you can do is let family members know what happens if they choose escalation. The odds are that in almost every way, they and the family business won’t come out better by escalating the quarrel. As Trippe says, “An aggrieved individual may say to himself, ‘I’m going to outsource the whole problem. I’ll call my attorney, and she’ll let me know when we’ve won the case. Simple!’”
Let your client know that in the real world, the course of the lawsuit is likely to be emotionally and financially devastating. On top of that, few people imagine how much stress their lawsuit is going to involve. The pain and anxiety can permeate every hour of every day.
Your client also needs to think about how painful it will be when their confidences are discussed in open court. They’ll find that their friends, colleagues and rivals may be reading in the tabloids about their most intimate family secrets. Remind them that the tabloid writers will be motivated to make the details as salacious as possible.
Adding insult to injury, even decades later, people will be able to read about the family’s intimate secrets on the internet. A lawsuit means the end of their privacy, not only now but possibly in perpetuity.
Discuss the Likely Outcomes
Invite your client to take a look at the range of possible outcomes. These include:
- Your client decides the relationship is more important than being right. He moves on and doesn’t hold a grudge. The children and those who come after him inherit a strong, high-functioning family.
- Maybe your client is never going to like his relative, but he decides that he and his relative can have a working relationship anyway. He knows that there are joint goals such as keeping the family business together or having the next generation getting along better. Your client may decide that he won’t spend time with his relative after work, and they they’ll never share holiday get-togethers. The individual may say to himself, “This isn’t my first choice, but I’m willing to take a hit to make this work for the group and avoid the lifelong destruction that comes from going to court. I’ll stay out of his or her way as much as possible, but we’ll make it work.”
- Sometimes an individual’s identity is so tied up with the position that there’s no room for movement. He makes the choice not to forgive and instead decides to hold onto resentment and maybe even hatred. I know of families where relatives won’t even attend funerals of family members because the resentment is so deep. In this case, an approach that Trippe has seen work is: “Wall off this person or develop clear rules of engagement to be able to work productively together and to minimize the harm he can do to the family.” In her view, it’s the same approach you would need to take with someone with an addiction or a mental illness.
- Mediation and collaborative law are other possibilities for dealing with problems before they take on a life of their own. Both of these approaches have a high success rate for dealing with conflict. They’re less expensive and they’re faster. In the case of collaborative law, instead of having a solution imposed by the court, the participants decide on the solution. Since both sides helped craft it, the solution is likely to be perceived as fairer and also more likely to be followed.
- The last and most unfortunate choice is, your client can go to court. In the families I’ve watched who’ve done this, the family relationship is blown up forever. In addition to the pain of a destroyed family, the bitterness can last for generations. To me, the choice of using litigation is about as serious, destructive, painful, final and wrong as the decision to go to war. In my view, any member of a family business considering this needs to step back and consider other possible solutions.
You’ve probably watched the havoc family quarrels leave in their wake. Maybe you’ve talked with individuals, as have I who are suicidal because, in their 70s and 80s, they’ve watched their families fall apart. They’re alone, and their life’s dreams are shattered.
Whether through prevention or through help in mitigating a crisis, convince your clients to avoid the nightmare house of horrors of a family feud.
Mitzi Perdue is a professional public speaker and author of the book, How to Make Your Family Business Last. You may contact her at [email protected] or visit her website at www.MitziPerdue.com.