How to prevent a family feud

Most volatile family agribusiness disputes have deep-rooted causes that stem from secrecy, distrust and avoidance. By confronting these issues early on, conflict can be avoided, says Trevor Dickinson.

How to prevent a family feud
To help avoid feuds in your family agribusiness, create strong and open relationships in your family, build leadership in the next generation, and use a family council to allow everyone to communicate optimally.
Photo: FW Archive
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The most infamous and intractable form of family conflict is the family feud. Little wonder, then, that it is the theme of so many TV soap operas. But while family feuds may be fascinating in their universality, they can cause profound emotional pain and do great harm to a business.

Family feuds can be complex, but certain elements stand out. In most cases, the parties are more invested in being ‘right’ and keeping their distance than in the painful task of sitting down with their rivals and trying to get to the root of the issue and forging a compromise.

Compromise is seen as a weakness, and hurting the other person is seen as more important than self-interest.

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Family feuds usually involve two people who see each other’s motives in black and white, with no neutral third party to intervene. Feuding parties tend to communicate poorly and are unable to accept differences.

They perceive unfairness in the way they are treated, and feel wronged. There is usually a patriarch or matriarch on the scene or in the wings who is distant, stern, demanding, and unclear about his or her intentions.

Sibling rivalries that escalate
Feuds often erupt between children or heirs, and the seeds of a family feud are often planted years in advance. In many cases, patriarchs don’t let their children know where they stand on important issues or what they expect from them. An agribusiness owner who hasn’t revealed a successor, for example, can precipitate a nasty fight if he or she dies unexpectedly.

These silent fathers’ or mothers’ reasoning is curious: if my children don’t know what to expect or where they stand, they’ll work harder for the agribusiness. This is a big mistake, and is a tactic that works only for a short time. Ultimately, uncertainty over parental approval has devastating emotional effects on children, and their insecurity can turn to anger at an innocent bystander.

Feuds are also triggered in families that foster a spirit of intense competition between siblings or fail to intervene actively in sibling rivalries. Brothers and sisters often fight as children, but in most families, parents regulate them.

But when parents refuse to take a stand or teach their children ways to resolve conflicts productively, this attitude will extend into adulthood and produce a family that is ripe for feuding.

One father, for example, fostered conflict in his family agribusiness by his own misguided actions. He told each of his warring sons: “You’re right, but don’t do anything about it.”
Another founder made it clear that his acceptance of his children could best be expressed in business terms. When a child got upset, he’d give him or her a better title in the business or a gift of shares. This led to growing rivalry and increasing resentment, both from family members who were passed over and those who received the meaningless titles. It also made for a very confused business!

Feuds can erupt when parents try to help one child in secret so that the others won’t know, or when they encourage unrealistic expectations in their children. Other parental behaviours that foster feuding include:

  • Unrealistic praise of children’s abilities and talent, or telling them they can do anything they want.
  • Not letting anyone in the agribusiness ‘hurt’ family members by evaluating them realistically or pressuring them for high performance.
  • Changing established plans when a child disappoints or disagrees with the parent.
  • Letting every child know there is space for him or her in the agribusiness, no matter what. Here the stage may be set for a nasty feud after the parents die if the children discover there isn’t enough for everybody.
  • Not taking a stand.

Pre-feuding families often fail to do the obvious: get everyone together to clear the air. Such families usually have no established pathways for resolving issues, and their style is one of avoidance. They deal with conflict by cutting it off, or get third parties, such as spouses, to explain their feelings.

When boiling point is reached, it’s already too late.

Families like these seldom have mediators or ‘healers’ to keep everyone together. In  healthy family businesses, this role is often played by the mother or an older, non-family business participant who has everybody’s trust and can get people to talk.

The message is clear: most feuds in a family business stem from members’ unrealistic expectations about the operation fostered within an environment where there is no open discussion of conflicts and no sharing of real difficulties.

If you want to avoid these distructive conflicts, you need to create strong, open relationships and build leadership in the next generation. To do this, you have to plan well in advance, make your feelings and intentions clear, and collaborate with all family members. A family council is the best vehicle for this.

Even if a feud erupts, several avenues to healing are still available. They may involve one party leaving the agribusiness, splitting assets, disengaging through a series of steps, or reconciling with the other party. But unless a solution is found, disaster is almost always the result. The remedy cannot be a secret either, as secrecy, distrust and avoidance are likely the three evils that created the feud in the first place.

One family member, or someone else trusted by all, should take on the role of ‘healer’. This can be a thankless task at first, and the person trying to carry it out should be ready for the long haul. Healing may require several attempts at reconciliation, which may mean talks in which the issues are not mentioned directly. Then, slowly, the parties can begin rebuilding a positive relationship.

In a family feud, it often happens that two people, or two parts of a family, break contact with each other. Over time, they may even forget what caused the rift, but it remains nonetheless.

People talk about ‘pride’ keeping them apart, or waiting for the other party to end the feud. What they fail to see is that either party can heal the split simply by reaching out to the other. The initiator may be rebuffed or distrusted at first, until his or her intentions become clear.

The key to overcoming a feud is to find an opportunity for the parties to come together and remember what was positive about their relationship.

Trevor Dickinson is CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company. Visit