One of our clients has a sign at their headquarters that says, “We are one big happy family, as we all know.” This reminds them not only of how they want the world to see them, but how they want to see themselves, no matter what the reality is, This is the perfect acquiescence to no family.
When people think of conflict and family businesses, they tend to think of the kind of “fireworks” type of conflict we see on the front pages of newspapers or depicted on popular TV shows. But more commonly the exact opposite is what we call “false harmony,” in which families are so afraid of conflict that they avoid uncomfortable discussions of any kind.
Why fake harmony is so destructive
Divergence in a family business is natural over time. As the family grows, interests diverge and the relationship of individual family members to the business changes. It is healthy and expected for individual owners (or future owners) to have different opinions, and trying to overturn those opinions, rather than risk being swayed by differences of opinion, is often counterproductive.
If your family doesn’t discuss any competing ideas, you may avoid talking about important issues. In our experience, false harmony can be more damaging than fireworks because it causes families to avoid making difficult but important decisions about a business or home.
False harmony can also cause dissatisfaction in the family. People don’t feel like they can express their interests or opinions for fear of causing conflict. Problems may be self-evident, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone.
False harmony can also stifle innovation. Homes can be a cornucopia of great ideas, but business and home owners miss out on opportunities to innovate when individuals don’t share ideas for fear of “wobbly.”
False harmony also delays generational transition by limiting intergenerational dialogue and collaboration. Without these conversations, the previous generation may not learn to trust the next, and vice versa. And the younger generation may fail to understand the intentions and methods of the previous generation, becoming increasingly frustrated with the pace of change.
Perhaps most importantly, false harmony can lead to what we call a “cliff incident”—an unresolved conflict that builds up over time until a more serious and complex debate erupts. Cliff events can tear apart the fabric of the family and limit the family’s ability to make important decisions together.
This is not to say that false harmony is unreasonable. Most families have long memories. Dissenting opinions received or in the wrong context may spark harmful conflict. If you disrupt family harmony, your family may turn against you for the rest of your life.
So even if you recognize that false harmony is hindering your family business, you need to proceed with caution. You don’t have to wrestle with a long list of dissatisfactions. If you wait until the right time to bring up a tough topic, strategic avoidance can be a wise ad hoc negotiating tactic.
Often, the cliff-edge events that spark outright conflict after a prolonged period of false harmony seem small in their own right. But months or years of silence about other disagreements also melded into the moment. So when it explodes, it’s hard to remove the damage. When this happens, months, years or even decades of progress can be undone as a family and as a group of owners. For example, a family owner we know (all identifiable details changed) was driven by the decision of another owner (his siblings) to end a favorite R&D job and hire the “wrong” non-family CEO, but He didn’t say anything for months. His anger “irrational” (according to his siblings) erupted during a seemingly innocuous discussion about the date of a board meeting, leading to a conflict that eventually resulted in the company missing out on a lucrative acquisition while it reworked other old wounds Chance.
Of course, what constitutes excessive conflict (as opposed to constructive disagreement) depends on family culture and personal interpretation. Some families tolerate conflict more easily than others, and people vary in the degree to which they stoically set aside their personal interests in support of a common cause. However, regardless of your home culture, signs of false harmony are common:
Signs of False Harmony
- no comment. You have a large group of people, you are having a conversation on an important topic, and everyone disagrees. No one wants to give a clear opinion on the matter.
- Avoid constructive feedback. It can be difficult to receive challenging feedback at times, but it is also productive and can help you grow as a family and a group of business owners.
- debate is suppressed. The home owner has voiced a strong opinion to your owner group on an important issue, and no one wants to express an opposing opinion. If everyone else is nodding to everything being discussed, you can stifle the real discussion and the introduction of new ideas. If everyone defaults to “sounds good,” there might be something going on under the surface.
- Backchannel conversations are the norm. Family members seem to agree in one meeting, but then you hear a range of points in one-on-one conversations. If you find that family members are just expressing their “true” opinions privately, rather than bringing their thoughts and concerns to the appropriate forum, you may be unknowingly heading for your own “cliff incident.”
There are several tools and methods that can effectively prevent false harmony in a family business. For example, we often bring metaphorical “frank sheets” into meetings. During the discussion, we refer to the Candidness Scale to determine whether we are getting to the heart of the issue or just scratching the surface. When it felt like we were entering a false harmony, we asked each participant to rate the candor of the conversation from 1 (low candor) to 5 (full openness). Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people who rated the conversation a three or less were often eager to share what wasn’t said, or they suspected their family members were being dishonest. This low rating could trigger a conversational shift. While this may seem like a silly tool, most people are happy not to waste time on “fake meetings” but to solve real problems.
Other useful tools we use to help families break free from false harmony and have constructive conversations:
Tools for Overcoming False Harmony
1. Start with simpler questions.
If your family is struggling with false harmony, you don’t have to go straight to the most challenging issues. Start with conversations and decisions that don’t elicit a highly emotional response.
We work with a family with a very complex family history, so they default to false harmony as a survival strategy. This leaves many unanswered questions. To escape the false harmony, they began discussing simple business decisions rather than delving into their emotional list of questions. As a family, they all want the business to thrive, so discussing business strategy is a safe place to debate each other. Once they’ve established that they can respectfully disagree, they’ll be able to start working through some of the other family issues.
2. Use surveys to discover opinions anonymously.
Have family members fill out a quick anonymous survey before and after important meetings to create a helpful barometer. Set up a simple survey with a service like Qualtrics and ask family members what topics they would like to address or explore what aspects of the meeting went well and what could be improved (we call this a “plus/triangle”). Such surveys can provide a simple but useful opportunity to provide constructive feedback.
3. Consider facilitating dialogue.
Bring in an outsider to facilitate challenging conversations. External moderators can set ground rules and boundaries for conversations, monitor those boundaries, reset conversations when things go off track, and ensure everyone has a chance to be heard.
4. Enhance transparency.
False harmony can worsen because family members feel insecure — fearful that asking questions will make them appear stupid or ignorant — or it means they are challenging other family members. They don’t want to expose themselves or offend.
But people are less likely to be afraid to ask questions if family leaders emphasize keeping their stakeholders informed about business issues and the key decisions being made. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
5. Set the right standard.
Remind your family that your goal is to make big decisions together. False harmony will not help you do this. Constructive dialogue.
Conflict and false harmony are common in business households around the world. The problems they are trying to solve are normal. Balancing the two is an important part of making the right decision together, and it’s not always easy for any family, no matter how much they love each other. Homes can be so preoccupied with wanting to show the perfect finish to the outside that they also build fake finishes inside. But there is no perfect family in the world.
Family-owned brewing company Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. revels in this realization. Its tagline, which appears on every can and bottle, is “Family Owned, Run and Argued.” Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman with our colleagues Josh Baron and Rob Lachenauer HBR Family Business Handbook: “It’s funny, but it’s the truth. We can get together and talk about what’s best for our company, but we do it in good faith because we know that everyone wants the best overall .”
Can you say something similar about your family business? If not, you may find yourself in a difficult situation precisely because you are trying to avoid conflict.