Understanding and Resolving Sibling Conflict

By Prof. Enrique Soriano

“Siblings are our partners and rivals, our first friends, and our first enemies.” -Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt

In my last article, we recognized sibling rivalry as one of the several “unhealthy” indicators common to all family businesses. Any sibling rivalry usually surfaces with so much negative energy when the leader dies.

Unless the family and business systems are separated with very well-defined rules and roles reinforced with a clear and agreed-upon accountability process, conflict and hostility are not far behind.

If you want your children to co-exist in the family business and play an important role in maintaining a healthy balance between family and work, you need to emphasize the importance of establishing healthy sibling relationships early on. “Parents should be thinking about this years in advance – well before they ask their children to enter the family business,” acclaimed Northeastern University professor of applied psychology Laurie Kramer says.

In a well-written article by Jonas Ruzek and Kimberly Eddleston, “How Family Firms Can Prevent (or Cool Down) Sibling Rivalries,” the authors emphasized the need for parents to cultivate sibling relationships early. They added, “Experts say that in order to prevent fallouts between siblings that hurt the family and the business, parents should start teaching their children relationship management skills as early as possible. Unlike other relationships in life, we do not choose our siblings, which makes for a unique dynamic.” In the same article, Dr. Kramer pointed out, “Brothers and sisters can withstand far more negativity and behavior than our friends or co-workers.” Thus, when siblings learn how to relate positively to one another and manage conflict effectively, they not only benefit from healthy, supportive sibling relationships but also learn to develop productive relationships throughout their lives.

Generally, a healthy enterprise with aligned siblings is one that is united, mindful of their responsibilities, constructive, open, and enjoys making money together. And yes, there exists healthy disagreements, but when it comes to final judgments, the family members tend to work around a consensus type of decision-making. There is also less tension because there is an atmosphere of trust and respect for one another’s abilities and knowledge.

On the other hand, toxic family businesses manifest in many ways, and primarily a pattern develops where siblings constantly argue at the slightest provocation. There is also mutual disrespect, resentment, unclear lines, and no real attempt by the founder to demarcate business and family matters. Each department headed by a sibling tends to assert full control of his or her own business unit or “kingdom,” and there is an obvious dislike when the siblings are asked to work together. Additionally, unhealthy sibling relationships mean there is no real coordination of work plans, thus leading to missed or failed targets and, in most cases, total failure. This unpleasant environment shifts from bad to worse when the founder is no longer around to order the children to put up or shut up.

Resolving Sibling Rivalries

Understanding the root cause(s) of the conflict and correlating it with the indicators mentioned in the earlier paragraph is a good place to begin. Below are some of the initial steps a leader/parent must pursue to remedy a major conflict disguising itself as a petty issue.

  1. The founder/parent must lead the way in resolving the conflict. There is no other person in the family that can do it. If the parent can intervene without being biased or emotional, well and good. Otherwise, it would be best to engage and work with a non-family professional business family consultant to objectively address the simmering boil about to spill over. Believe me; these problems will percolate and continue to fester when left unresolved.
  2. Critically, it is vital to distinguish the kind of sibling conflict the family is experiencing. Is it an “emotional” conflict, a “strategic” one, or both? The founder/parent must identify if it is a personal issue that dates back to when they were still in their teens, if it is business-related, or perhaps just a disagreement related to where the business is headed.
  3. According to authors Fowler and Edquist, emotional or personal conflicts represent a personal feud and should not be dealt with using company processes. Siblings with intense emotional conflicts have likely never learned to effectively manage disagreements, and instead, their relationship is characterized by intense power struggles and competition.
  4. On the other hand, strategic-related conflict highlights business and strategy disagreements, including primarily management styles. Conflicts under this category can be addressed using corporate governance and best practices.

To be continued…

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