This week, Prof. Dr. Alain Laurent Verbeke, a partner in Greenille by Laga, discusses the role conflict has to play in family dynamics.
A smart businessman
Recently at a dinner, a captain of industry shared some of his worries with me: “With my children almost graduating from University, I’ve become nervous over the last couple of months. And yet, I shouldn’t be: the business is flourishing and my kids are really kind and smart. My fear though is how to connect my kids with the business in the coming years and decades. How can I make sure there will be no conflicts and they continue getting along? Talking with friends (all established Belgian business leaders) has only made me worry more”.
He continued: “The thing is, Alain, they all claim that they have dealt with the issues efficiently. They have worked with an advisor who had three 2-hour meetings with the entire family, their wives and children (and sometimes even the in-laws) and discussed family values.
“Based on a list of some 50 values, all family members were asked to tick up to 10 of their top values, which they then discussed. They followed the same process for the mission statement; the vision of the family regarding the business and wealth. They discussed rules about who might work in the family business and under what conditions. At the third meeting, the advisor presented the concept of the ‘family charter’. Mom, Dad and all the kids agreed to it, toasted and that was it. Problem solved. But is that so? Moreover, one friend who did this ‘family charter stuff’ five years ago now has big conflicts within his family.
“So Alain, what is your advice here?”
No quick fix
These questions come from a smart businessman with great intuition.
He sensed that intense human interactions, emotions and conflicts cannot be settled with a standard top-down document, drafted in two or three meetings. A family charter created so briefly may give family members the impression they have arranged everything once and for all. However, this can be an illusion, for at least two reasons:
Firstly, life is dynamic. Conflicts can be the very essence of human interaction; they are likely to always be there, in the best and most loving or caring families. Secondly, conflicts cannot completely be resolved through the creation of structures or governance rules, but primarily by the people.
Whilst one can draft a hundred charters, conflicts between family members will never disappear. The problem is not the conflict per se, but how it is dealt with. Conflicts fulfil an important and constructive role in our interpersonal relationships, provided that we handle them in a positive and effective manner. Hence, a family striving for sustainable family harmony should start early on with a bottom-up growth process of open communication, learning to deal with conflicts.
Families building an open communication culture into their DNA can be in a far better position to collectively and constructively cope with difficult and delicate questions relating to the ownership and management of their business interests. Respecting the underlying interests, concerns and feelings of each family member, with the involvement of everyone, the family engages on a journey where all learn how to constructively channel the tension between assertiveness and empathy. (Grand)-parents as well as children are taught to formulate their own views in a clear and respectful manner while, at the same time, learning to listen to each other’s views with true empathy.
We see this work best when it is a dynamic process, which proceeds at the pace of the priorities and wishes of the family. The family decide together on the issues to prioritise, and through open dialogue they reach, at some point, family agreement. Together, these family agreements constitute a truly living and dynamic family charter. It is the result of an organic process, bottom up, evolving and transforming according to the family’s ever-changing circumstances and lives.
Proceeding together as a family, listening to and talking with each other, can be essential in family governance, often much more so than formally drawing up documents like family charters, constitutions, and regulations. These may only be useful if they follow naturally as a result and product of a family dynamics growth process. Those families that have not passed through this intense learning process with one another, but do have a charter, may find that their family charter appears to be a dangerous illusion.