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Individual Autonomy in Family Businesses Published: Sunday, August 10, 2003 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

Most of the challenges in family businesses have to do with creatively managing conflict, usually expressed as communication or behavioral issues. Thus, it is critical to acknowledge the difference between simple and complex conflicts and to create the understanding for the time, energy, and resources needed to resolve conflicts.

Empirical research and experience say that simple conflicts are not embedded in the family’s emotional history and usually respond to rutinary remedies. Complex conflict are part of delicate situations that have been mishandled, denied, ignored, or misunderstood and have become intense, chronic and recycled through the family and the business.

Complex conflicts are those in which the emotional issues interfere in the resolution of the critical business decisions. The point is clear. Family issues and business issues are entangled and this condition makes it sometimes very difficult to come with an easy solution. Simple conflicts are those in which the family issues, although ever present, do not interfere with the business decisions, and business dilemmas are kept out of family dynamics.

Families should not avoid conflicts, but quickly seek help and move to resolve the issues while they remain relatively simple. It has to be that way because family businesses are fertile grounds for complex conflicts that undermine business decisions and strategic practices.

There is a formidable psychological paradox regarding family businesses. The closer the members in the family become through work and play, the more each member may feel the pull for autonomy or independence. Conflict is a way of managing to much closeness. (Absence makes the heart grow fonder, sometimes). Another way of managing to much closeness is “pseudo-harmony” or “pseudo-mutuality”, where the family displays little overt conflict, but in reality there is considerable covert tension. Every family who works and lives together has felt this sensation occasionally.

The natural pull for autonomy within family businesses is usually expressed as differences of opinion, sometimes anger, and even distancing.

There are always constructive channels and settings for resolving these conflicts in the life of the family. The benefits of doing so are: 1. Maintaining a healthy distance/closeness between members and helping the family to keep a check on values and goals. 2. Differences of opinions are healthy and necessary in any family because they create a rich portfolio of ideas and perspectives. 3. Building self-confidence, especially in the succeeding generation, which needs to feel autonomous from their parents, even while working with them. 4. Increasing intimacy in work and family, resolving, and managing successfully conflicts create strength in the bonds between family members.

Emile Durkheim and George Simmel stated that managing conflict together can lead to improved relationships in the family and this is also the case in the planning of the business.


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