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Family Conflict and Mediation – “Looking for Uncle Bob”

Conflict (noun) = a form of protracted discord between individuals or groups.

Conflict (verb) =  to clash emotionally, intellectually, materially or physically.

Conflict is a form of energy that can be focussed, or unfocussed, on its inbound and outbound course.   Active families constantly generate relationship conflict through their interactions.  Active businesses constantly engage in competitive conflict in their commercial activities.

Family Business combines the best and worst elements of relationship and competitive conflict to produce a dense fabric that’s too strong to pull apart;  too rough to handle safely without care, and so impenetrable it can suffocate everyone under its “protection”.

The challenge for every business family is to cut its own unique cloth for the long term good of all family members.  The reality is that many families fall short, especially when age, ego and habit overwhelm sense, generosity and goodness.

Strategies for ending family conflict vary, from overwhelming and defeating “the opposition”, to negotiating a peaceful resolution that everyone can live with.  Most families deal with most of their conflicts well enough, most of the time.  The results may not be perfect, but they’re liveable, and families can usually “get by”, because they’ve had to do that since forever.

But sometimes things get out of control and can’t be resolved, either in the family and/or in the business.  Common causes include:  partner / spouse / sibling / generational pressures;  health issues;  stalled succession;  irascible old age;  fossilisation;  leadership vacuum;  dysfunctional relationships and behaviours, and financial pressures.

If it’s blessed, the family will have an “Uncle Bob” to turn to.  Uncle Bob may be a s/he, old or young, and may be related, or not.  Uncle Bob’s main qualifications are: (a) everyone respects them enough to give them a go and (b) they’re good at reducing tension and resolving conflict.

If the family doesn’t have its own Uncle Bob, it needs to find a substitute before things get completely out of hand and put the survival of the family and the business at serious risk.

Some turn to their traditional advisers for help – accountants, lawyers and psychologists – and quickly discover that while they’re great at lawyering, accounting and psyching, they’re not so good at dealing holistically with combined human and technical issues for the wider business family.  They also tend to prefer to support identifiable clients, who are usually the ones who pay them.  This often pits them against the broader interests of the business, and/or other family members.

Another alternative is to use a trusted non-family mage, perhaps a non-executive director from the Family’s Business Board, or a referral from a well-meaning friend or associate.  This can work well when things aren’t too complicated, but it’s a really big ask for a willing / gifted amateur to step into the breach when things are seriously difficult.

They’re rare, but they do exist:  professional Solutionists who combine experience and skill in mediation with tried and tested family business processes, to offer a professional version of “Uncle Bob”.


Written by Family Business Institute

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