How to Have Hard Conversations in Family Business

Back Commentary Oct 12, 2018 By Kevin McCarthy

As the meeting drags on, the group realizes it won’t end until the boss is happy. But as long as he and the chief operating officer continue to argue, there’s no end in sight. Others in the meeting offer various ideas in an effort to find common ground, but neither the CEO or COO are willing to budge and both are intent on winning the support of their colleagues.

Most of us recognize these kind of group-power dynamics. Team members in the meeting see their role as satisfying the boss, while key leaders are using the team to gain support for their perspective. Instead of talking openly about the real challenges of the work before them, everyone is getting lost in interpersonal dynamics.

Sounds complicated, right?

Now ponder an additional challenge in this scenario: This is a family business. The father — the founder and CEO — and his daughter — the COO — are locked in a dynamic that may feel much like other familial conversations they’ve had during their lifetimes. For them, the risk of this meeting becoming personal is even greater. And their team members may not feel comfortable interjecting in what could come across as a disagreement between father and daughter.

A good conversation is not about reaching compromise, but rather about building increased awareness and insight, according to William Isaacs in his book, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together. He describes dialogue as building a conversation that has a “center and no sides.” At the center of a workplace conversation should be the challenge of the work, not personalities. But why is this so difficult, and even more so for a family business?

One reason is that to have a productive discussion, we must be willing to speak with candor about our differences — knowing this will create tension — in order to develop a more robust understanding of problems and generate a wider range of possible solutions. We must acknowledge that our perspectives will not all be the same, and that’s a good thing.

You can imagine why this is often challenging for a family business. Characteristics of a successful and resilient family include the capacity to give unconditional love, withhold judgment and respect differences without trying to change each other. In other words, in families, acceptance and support is critical. This is not to say that support is not important in organizations. But a critical trait of safety and trust in organizational life is a shared commitment to support each other in meeting the challenges of work.

So, here are six tips to help family businesses have hard conversations in the workplace without taking things personally (although they can be applied to all types of businesses).

  1. Focus on the work: When your team is working together to solve problems, focus on the outcome that needs to be changed and don’t get lost in interpersonal dynamics.
  2. Start with understanding: First, build a shared and robust understanding of why the work is failing to produce the desired outcome. Never let people start advocating for solutions without an agreement on why the problem even exists.
  3. Own your bias: To do this, make sure that anything you advocate for includes an invitation for others to critique your perspective — that includes being open to critique from your parent or your child.
  4. Acknowledge the tension: Successful groups are able to describe the emotional impact of the conversation — good or bad — and explore why that effect is emerging.
  5. Get clear on similarities and differences: If you disagree with the perspective of a colleague (or a family member), first point out areas of similarities in thought before addressing the differences. This helps to decrease the initial defensive reaction that disagreements often produce.
  6. Use “what if” questions: Approaching a topic this way will move the conversation from the analysis of differences to the exploration of new perspectives and possibilities.

In family business, it is essential to focus on the challenges of work and to avoid the inevitable feeling that the challenge is interpersonal. Taking the time to describe the emotional challenges of work and of hard conversations can go a long way in helping family businesses thrive from generation to generation.