Rivalry between family members is common in family businesses around the globe. Andres Rico believes sparring family members should invoke the Stockdale Paradox in order to resolve conflicts in and around the family business
It is common to see families not getting along, even not being able to standing the sight of each other, but it is less common to see family members accept this fact and act upon it.
Through my own experiences as an external board member in family firms, I have seen different mechanisms in which families deal with their differences in day-to-day decision-making, as well as in the strategic aspect of the business and the family. Families must be truthful about their capacity to work together and determine what is the best way forward.
When times tell the tale
In Colombia, for example, 70% of family businesses are either still in their first generation, or changing hands into the second. This is the most difficult time for a family business, and when conflicts start to blossom.
Unresolved conflicts show up in the decision-making organisms around family businesses – board meetings become war rooms where aggressive behaviour can manifest itself. Issues vary from actual business problems to childhood or adolescent misunderstandings, and is where the term "sibling rivalry" really comes into its own. It is a fact that some siblings get along better with one another than others, and it is important to recognise when siblings can actually work together.
In a predominantly Catholic environment, it is morally inconceivable for a sibling to declare that he/she finds it impossible to get along with a brother or sister. Of course, we are allowed not to get along with our family members, and as humans we owe it to ourselves to accept difficult situations as part of life.
Accepting the brutal reality
You may have already heard about Admiral Jim Stockdale and his ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton prison camp where, during the Vietnam conflict, he was kept as a prisoner of war from 1965 to 1973. He became a model of tenacity through acts such as cutting his face so that he could not be put in videotapes showing how well prisoners of war were treated. Specifically, he developed mechanisms that would help people endure adversity.
When asked about those who did not make it out of the Hanoi Hilton, the Admiral referred to them as "the optimists". To quote Stockdale: "The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas'. And Christmas would come and go, and they stayed. And they died of a broken heart." It is a fundamental truth about adversity, according to Stockdale, that you accept the brutal facts of your current reality, however tough or inconvenient.
The Stockdale Paradox is, therefore, a way of dealing with life's challenges: Retain faith that you will prevail in the end but accepting the most brutal facts of your reality. It is a very powerful tool when dealing with unresolved conflict within the family business.
The most important fact about an unresolved conflict is that it is, first and foremost, a conflict and that, second, it might be too late to solve it, so it is time to make a brave decision in favour of one's wellbeing.
Split the business, save the family
Families that have utilised the Stockdale Paradox to do what is best for the suffering individuals – who are, for example, being "tortured" by their incapacity to deal with one another – actually end up better in the long run. They have cleverly accepted that there is nothing wrong with not being able to work with a select few family members. But they have also been open about the fact that even if the family can't get along, the business must prevail.
It is a fundamental right for family members to look for this reality, accept it, and act upon it. It is the greatest gift for oneself and for the family.