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Assertive, or co-operative?

A better way to drive business success on your family farm with effective communication and conflict resolution

Farmers using digital tablet on potato farm

I have taught in the CTEAM program for 20-plus years. During sessions on strategic human resource management, participants routinely say that communication — particularly when dealing with conflict — is something they struggle with.

Early participants questioned the benefits of formal communication approaches, such as information sharing and decision-making meetings. They were also hesitant to hold employees (especially family members) accountable for following policies or for achieving agreed-upon goals, matters which are integral to business success.

When people don’t communicate in family businesses, problems can fester, resentments can build, and communication can disintegrate into personal affronts, much as we see on social media today. Undoubtedly, the business will suffer as a result. The good news is that this is changing.

Increasingly, CTEAM participants talk about the successes that come with holding regular, formalized family meetings where opportunities are assessed, conflicts are resolved and decisions are made and even recorded and followed up on.

Recently, the Advanced CTEAM program took participants through an exercise to help further develop communication skills. Using the Conflict Mode Instrument developed by Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann, participants reflected on their tendency to be assertive and/or co-operative when trying to resolve differences of opinion. According to Thomas and Kilmann, combining the two dimensions of assertiveness and co-operativeness leads to five primary communication approaches:

  1. Avoiding — postponing, sidestepping, withdrawing (unassertive and unco-operative).
  2. Accommodating — agreeing to another’s point of view, regardless of what you really think (unassertive and co-operative).
  3. Competing — strongly advocating your own point of view, regardless of what the other person says (assertive and unco-operative).
  4. Compromising — finding a “split the difference” solution (moderate assertiveness and co-operativeness).
  5. Collaborating — actively seeking to understand the other person’s point of view and working hard to find a “win-win” agreement (co-operative and assertive).

In essence, this model suggests that we each have a preferred way of communicating when dealing with conflict, regardless of the situation. Yet the most effective communication strategy is context dependent.

Avoiding a conflict, for instance, might be appropriate when we need time to reflect or to get more information, or if we are too emotional to engage productively. But with chronic avoidance, smaller problems can soon build into bigger ones, and big problems can remained unaddressed.

Many “avoiders” would rather walk away than deal with an unproductive daughter- or son-in-law. Some of this reflects family culture, in which it is considered rude, for example, to call out Uncle Jack for being repeatedly late. Yet when the business is suffering, avoidance is not the best approach.

To move beyond avoidance, consider why it occurs. Some people are so conflict-averse that even dealing with small problems seems overwhelming. They might be concerned about hurting a family member’s feelings, but you can help to overcome chronic avoidance by creating a respectful environment, acknowledging the discomfort in the room, and clarifying what can be gained by addressing the issue frankly but kindly (having a courageous conversation).

Beginning with facts that everyone can agree on can be a starting point. If this sounds like your family, try starting your next family meeting with something like: “We’ve been avoiding this issue as a family for far too long. We all want the business to succeed and coming to an agreement on… is going to be incredibly helpful. Let’s begin by looking at the facts.”

If this seems too daunting, consider hiring a facilitator who can meet with individuals to understand the situation as well as help chair meetings.

Accommodating or “giving in” is another strategy that CTEAM participants acknowledged engaging in. Accommodating can be effective when an issue is more important to the other person than it is to you. It can also help generate good will so the next decision might come your way. However, if accommodating prevents the right decision from being made, this too can be costly.

Chronic accommodators need to recognize that by not providing their point of view, the business may be missing out. Asking those who tend to be quiet, “What do you think?” then showing interest and support for their point of view before others jump in can build confidence and bring other important information to the surface. Ask yourself whose opinion you are not benefiting from, and figure out a way to engage them.

Competing is effective in cases of emergency, or urgency, when there are strongly held disparate views, but a decision must be made. At these times, once competing views are heard and a decision is made (typically by the person with the most formal authority), the team needs to support the decision maker and support the implementation. When one person’s competing approach predominates, however, family members and other employees may become frustrated by their lack of influence and withdraw, undermining decisions or seeking employment elsewhere.

For farm succession to be effective, it is important that the retiring parents have used a variety of communication and decision-making strategies in order to build confidence and capability in their successors.

Compromising is a great “middle ground” strategy when the stakes aren’t high and a quick decision is needed. Splitting the difference gives each party some of what they want. Chronic compromise, however, can result in sub-optimal performance.

Pushing for more — perhaps exploring a radical new business idea, making a significant capital investment and taking a calculated risk — is what the business needs for long-term success. Bold goals can be undermined by compromise.

Collaborating, when done well, is the most time-consuming approach but ultimately it can maximize the potential of a win-win agreement. It should be used for complex decisions with significant long-term implications. Information gathering and active listening — to multiple points of view — are important elements of effective collaboration.

Collaboration typically involves learning, including about the other person’s knowledge, goals, concerns and general point of view. In CTEAM, participants experienced a fun negotiating exercise that powerfully demonstrates how hard it is to truly listen to another person, particularly when you disagree with what they have to say. To guard against distraction when you are trying to collaborate, paraphrase back what you heard once the person has finished speaking. (This will also help you avoid interrupting or formulating your counter-argument when you are supposed to be listening!)

When people don’t feel listened to, resentments build over time and the business is robbed of important information.

It may be hard to recall what daily communication was like before smartphones, text messaging, Instagram, Facebook, blogs, email and tweeting. No doubt, these are highly convenient and can be powerful enablers of information sharing and record-keeping. None of the technology available today, however, can replace deep, meaningful, face-to-face communication, particularly when conflict is involved.

Developing the communication skills needed to help the business thrive should be a priority of every farm family.

Julia Christensen Hughes is the dean at College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph in Guelph, Ont. Agri-Food Management Excellence runs the Canadian Total Excellence in Agricultural Management (CTEAM) program.

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