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If there is one thing that the world is not lacking, it is conflict. Yet, it seems to be found in abundance in every aspect of our lives. Nowhere is this more true than in the family business, where the boundaries separating professional and personal dynamics are blurred in ways unseen in other institutions. The ever-present proximity of one’s family members, while rewarding and productive when well managed, can be a petri dish of resentment that, when left unresolved, can have devastating consequences.
In this article, we explore the four negative consequences of unresolved conflict in the family business.
1. You become irrationally stubborn
In our modern society, we like to believe that when one’s beliefs are challenged with well-reasoned facts, he or she will incorporate the new information into their thinking and change their mind. But we know that this is far from the truth – in fact, during moments of conflict, studies show that people become more likely to dismiss contradictory information and begin to irrationally strengthen their original arguments.
This tendency is rooted in a psychological phenomenon called the “backfire effect”. In 2006, psychologists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler conducted an experiment in which they had subjects read a fake article, and then a true article that corrected the first. The first article suggested the United States found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after its 2003 invasion. The follow-up true article correctly stated that the U.S. never found them. Unsurprisingly, when a group filled with supporters of the war read the first article, they agreed with its message. But after reading that there were no WMDs in the second article, the subjects reported being even more certain than before that there actually were WMDs, and that their original beliefs were correct.
This presents a uniquely difficult challenge when conflict arises in the family business, because as members try to keep things professional and argue logically by pulling out what they assume to be neutral facts and figures, the more the opponent feels even surer of their position. That is why its important for everyone to understand that we are all susceptible to the backfire effect and tackle the problem early on by framing the issue not as a battle of smarter arguments, but rather an opportunity to collectively “gain a new discovery”, as legendary British politician James Burgh writes.
2. You become more likely to die early
In a study that was conducted over 20 years by Northwestern University, researchers had married couples come into a lab every five years to argue about their common disagreements in front of a camera. Over the two decades, the researchers found that spouses who tended to get angry during the arguments were much more likely to later report symptoms of cardiac problems, with a shocking 80% of such men developing chest pain or high blood pressure at the end of the experiment.
Which makes sense, according to study author Claudia Haase, because anger speeds up one’s heart rate and raises their blood pressure. As this occurs over a length of time, that causes wear and tear on the heart, sharply raising the risk for life-threatening cardiovascular problems.
In a separate study by researchers from Ohio State University, researchers found that prolonged conflict caused women to experience steep rises in hormone levels after arguments occurred, as they thought about and relived the arguments through the day. The resulting psychological stress in turn weakened their immune systems and made them more susceptible to viral infections.
According to the study, the key to reducing the physical stress of arguments is to concentrate on the issues at hand and reduce the toxic style of fighting. “We’re not saying that conflicts in marriage are bad necessarily,” says researcher Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. “It’s the quality of the disagreement. The sarcasm, name-calling and back-biting are the problems.”
3. Everyone becomes worse at their jobs
One of the major symptoms of prolonged conflict in the family business is that the fighting is rarely contained, with tension permeating throughout the company. In a 2012 study by the British National Health Service, researchers investigated the emotional effect on employees after witnessing unpleasant interactions amongst co-workers. Over 15 days, participants were asked to record their reactions to over 1,000 interpersonal interactions between co-workers.
Unsurprisingly, subjects reported feeling significantly more emotionally drained after witnessing unpleasant interactions compared to pleasant ones. Furthermore, they felt greater exhaustion from witnessing the interactions first-hand (rather than hearing about them indirectly). The authors concluded that this third-party effect on employees “has the potential not only to have a negative effect on the individual but to pervade the organisation”. Predictably, this phenomenon is likely to magnify in impact when the conflicts occur between family members who are also company leaders.
But the effects of this go far beyond emotions. In a famous 1908 study, psychologists conducted a study on rats that were guided through a maze using electrical shocks. They found that when the rats received mild electrical shocks, they were able to complete the maze more quickly. But when the electrical shocks became too strong, the rats would scurry around in random directions to escape, showing that excess levels of anxiety impaired the ability to concentrate and negatively affected performance. This study exemplifies the real world impact of conflict-induced performance and points to the need to resolve conflicts early on because the more protracted and overt the conflict becomes, the more employees are likely to work at suboptimal levels.
4. It can lead to mental health issues
Perhaps not surprisingly, lengthy conflicts impact metal health. In one 1986 study, psychologist D. von Holt studied conflict in tree shrews, small squirrel-like mammals that are notorious for being fiercely territorial. When two tree shrews were put in the same cage, they immediately attacked in order to establish dominance. Later, a clear plastic wall was placed in the cage to divide them, but the mere sight of the other shrew was enough to stress out the shrews, persistently elevating their heart rate and cortisol levels. As they succumbed to severe stress, the shrews began losing 2-8 per cent daily of their body weight daily, and all of the animals died within 2-20 days unless they were separated from each other.
Conflict elicits stress, a self-defense mechanism against harmful elements in our world. When your body detects stress, a small region in the base of the brain called the hypothalamus reacts by producing hormones that help you to deal with any threats or pressure you are facing – also called the “fight or flight” response. These hormones, while helpful in short bursts when you must act, can be extremely harmful if they’re released chronically because your body is releasing adrenaline and cortisol as if you were in danger at all times. The constant hyper-alert status of your body and brain can lead to psychological problems, including anxiety disorders and depression.
Stress borne from conflict can make people feel distrust, anger, anxiety and fear, which in turn can destroy relationships at home and at work. In the family business, where home and work are often one and the same, the negative psychological impact of prolonged conflict must not be underestimated. The last thing anyone needs is for them to worry themselves to death, as did the poor tree shrews.