Most business owners would agree that some amount of conflict is simply a routine part of running a business. But conflict within a family-owned and -managed company usually brings additional unique challenges that include everything from weighing sound decisions as a board of directors made up primarily of family members to managing entrenched sibling rivalries in day-to-day interactions.
In his landmark 1986 article, Reinforcing Organizational Defensive Routines: An Unintended Human Resources Activity, Dr. Chris Argyris identified “defensive routines” as unconscious habits that keep us from exposing our thinking and assumptions regarding decisions and actions. These habits allow us to avoid the embarrassment or threat we would experience if holes were punched in our thought processes. “Defensive reasoning,” Argyris writes, “protects us from learning about the validity of our reasoning”; that is, it either keeps conflicts in play or avoids dealing with them at all. In turn, this way of working keeps us from learning to make better decisions in the future or from improving relationships with family members at work. More important, it keeps us from leveraging conflict.
Defensive routines play a major role in the way conflict is instigated, managed, maintained or avoided. This is certainly true in family firms, where owners bring to the table individually learned routines as well as those passed down from generation to generation. While it is often these defensive routines that block the healthy examination of rationales for certain decisions, we are more likely to tell ourselves that we are protecting family members and preserving important relationships. Here are some common defensive routines that show up in family businesses:
Amp Up. Becoming louder and more insistent about one’s point diverts attention away from any discussion about one’s reasoning or other viable alternatives. This routine usually escalates the disagreement until everyone tires and finally gives in – which in turn strengthens the sense of unilateral control by the one who uses the routine.
Be Nice. Some families use good manners and being publicly pleasant as a way to avoid close examination of difficult decisions. In their minds, being nice is more important than being honest.
Don’t Talk. Most families have “undiscussables” – topics or actions that everyone understands are off-limits for public discussion. Tacit buy-ins to this routine mean that while CEO Uncle Joe consistently makes decisions that really are board decisions, no one confronts him because “there will be hell to pay” afterward.
Keep the Peace (No Matter What). Avoidance is a routine that really only sends the conflict underground for a period of time. Eventually, the conflict can come out in other ways and may begin to damage the business and even family relationships.
Communicate Indirectly. This is when family members “triangulate,” reasoning that if they talk to other family members about someone’s behavior, they don’t have to deal with that person’s potential questions about their reasoning.
Barrel Through. The thinking behind this routine is, “If I manage situations unilaterally and appear frantically busy, other family members who question my actions can’t catch me long enough to ask about my rationale.” While this routine maintains a sense of control, it is most often driven by a fear of failure.
Lay Down the Law. Some routines try to use strong confrontation to crush outside ideas: “If I manage my evaluation of others in rigid black-and-white terms, I can keep others from checking the validity of my approach.”
Blame. Deflecting responsibility onto someone else can be a convenient way to limit the conversation about one’s own rationale or involvement.
Intellectualize. Some family members may learn that if they don’t address their feelings, they not only protect themselves from discomfort, but also keep the true range of their motives from becoming visible to themselves and others, thus maintaining an illusion of logical and sound thinking.
Defensive routines are usually so ingrained in family interactions that they are generally not recognized as anything beyond a mentality of “that’s just the way things are.” They also rarely reflect the values espoused by the business or embraced by the family. By becoming aware of the ways family members use defensive routines—and redirecting them—businesses can appropriately channel conflict, increase productivity and improve family relationships.