It is not uncommon for family businesses and their managing families to be in conflict. 

There are the “every day” conflicts of running the operating company.  These can include debates on machinery acquisitions, pricing policies, supplier relationships, customer relationships, etc.

For some instinctive survivalist reason, these conflicts generally get solved one way or another as they are purely about the business at hand.  Someone loses an argument here but may win one over there.  The expression “pick your battles”must have originated in this playing field! They get solved. The business must continue to move forward.

What about the conflicts that don’t get so easily resolved?
It is not a pricing issue, a supplier issue, or a receivable issue.  It is a fundamental disagreement about something much greater.  It can be a conflict such as:

  • Where is our next level of growth coming from?
  • How come our younger brother/sister never shows up at the office until payday?
  • With Mom and Dad spending the winters away, how come they still get to hold all of the purse strings?
  • How do my kids get involved or should they?

These conflicts usually spend a great deal of time simmering before they NEED to be resolved.

So these are clearly family business issues but what do they have to do with Mediation?

Mediation skills and tactics help family businesses in so many ways.  Firstly, they begin to set the table for improved communications.  Communication in family businesses is usually poor or nonexistent.  Developing an agenda of specific items that need to be discussed is one of the first steps. In working with family businesses, the initial intake work done often will provide valuable feedback on the type of communication within the family both personally and corporately.

Secondly, with the Mediator, their skills of drilling deep inside the issues in the individual intake, will uncover many of the areas of simmering conflict within the family.  By understanding the nature of those conflicts from everyone’s perspective allows them to be brought up in a safe, inclusive manner. By maintaining control as one would in a formal mediation session; these subjects can be brought forward, thoroughly discussed and ideally resolved one at a time.

As in mediation, unresolved issues often must be “parked” for a future meeting. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but in a family business context, isn’t that really a great way to plan the next meeting? This begins the process of having a more formal structure for better family business communication.

The Mediator/Facilitator maintains control, but all voices are heard and most importantly, there are multiple participants helping solve the various issues.  By putting items in a “parking lot” for the next meeting, the participants are charged with working on clarifying their understanding and position with regards to these “parked” issues. They may be encouraged to try and have less formal discussions with those they have the conflict with. But they do know it will be coming up at the next meeting and a resolution will be the focus. 

This mediation inspired approach has often led to entirely new ways of dealing with conflicts within the day-to-day dealings inside the operating company. Rather than some hierarchical declaration (decision) made from one’s perch on a corporate organizational chart, the concept of collaboration begins to find its way into the decision-making process. Perhaps some more input is sought, more ideas are discussed, and the team has a safer environment in which to contribute their thoughts. 

Have a great long weekend and a safe summer!

Mediation & The Family Business