Most businesses have conflicts occasionally. All families do. So it’s no surprise that family businesses sometimes encounter conflicts among the family members.
Typically these conflicts are emotionally charged, and often there is no clear right way to resolve them. Family members may have different points of view about what is best for the business. Sometimes the conflict is over balancing what’s best for the business against what’s best for the family members collectively and what’s best for each individual family member. Sometimes the conflicts are as much about relationships as about substantive business issues. In those cases, even if one family member is the “boss” and can impose a solution, the conflicts can linger.
In some businesses, the family owners have the communication and negotiation skills to resolve the conflicts in a way that works for everyone. But those skills aren’t common, and they can be difficult to apply in a situation where feelings are strong and deep.
So the unresolved conflicts continue or grow, draining energy and attention from the task of running the business, potentially creating a toxic atmosphere of mistrust and hostility. Sometimes they result in a formal dispute with threatened or actual litigation. At that point, significant damage has usually been done to the relationships among the family owners, and perhaps to the business itself. If litigation proceeds, the damage may be irreparable.
Mediation offers a way to keep this from happening. A skilled neutral mediator, with nothing invested in the situation and no ties to the parties, can help resolve the conflicts before the fabric of the business is damaged. This kind of early-intervention mediation is different from commercial mediation of litigated cases, and involves business problem-solving skills more than litigation skills, and sensitivity to relationships more than facility in predicting lawsuit outcomes.
But the mediator doesn’t impose a resolution on the parties. No one understands a family-owned business better than the family owners. Mediation is designed to help them find the best resolution themselves.