Managing Identity-based Conflict: Beyond Better Communication for Family Business

“I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” – Abraham Lincoln

Good communication practices are important in family business, but attempting to resolve family business conflict by introducing only communication solutions rarely produces a lasting result. Family businesses are dealing with a much more complex situation that demands a deeper understanding of the forces at play, including identity-based conflict. Unpacking the motivations and complexity behind communications is essential.

Survival of the Self: Understanding Identity-based Conflict and Family Business

Families are made up of individuals with their own unique values, goals, personality traits, and talents that are at the core of their sense of self, or their identity. Conflicts usually emerge when one person’s values or goals clash with another’s. Make no mistake: these crises are much more than silly emotional flare-ups, because what one person might consider a triviality may be perceived by the other as essential to their survival or self-fulfillment.

When people feel that the values and goals that reflect their very sense of self are threatened, they will go to desperate lengths to defend what they hold dear. When stakeholders are confident that their values and goals are heard, acknowledged and respected – even if not agreed with – they will be far less likely to sacrifice their relationships over their differences.

When a family member perceives another to be interfering unjustly with their ability to satisfy what they feel is an essential need, or core value, conflict will inevitably result. An individual’s ability to fulfill their needs and live according to their values is intrinsic to their sense of autonomy and self-worth.

The work of psychologist Abraham Maslow is helpful in understanding this dynamic. In 1954, he created the “Hierarchy of Human Needs” to illustrate how humans make meaning for themselves by striving to fulfill their true potential. He suggested that people seek “self-actualization” by moving up the ladder from satisfying the most basic needs to the more existential quests that provide us with a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives. (See graphic below.)

Managing Identity-based Conflict: Beyond Better Communication for Family Business

Copyright: Studious Guy 2016


Our values help make up individual identities. We define ourselves by our moral and religious principles, the neighborhoods we live in, how we raise our children, and what we buy. Our values usually reflect the advancing (or evolving) needs we are trying to meet at any time. For example, a person lacking a sense of security and safety that comes from being homeless might crave security and safety as what they value most, whereas a person who has the security and safety of a home and a job might then be seeking a sense of love and belonging through family and marriage.

In identity-based conflict, it’s helpful to understand that our values and goals come out of our individual quests to fulfill our ever-more-sophisticated needs. That means that if two people are working on different levels of the pyramid, conflict is inevitable.


Our goals derive from our mission to satisfy our immediate and future needs, which are informed by our values. For example, the goal and definition of success will often vary drastically among individuals, depending on all sorts of factors, including their personal history, personality, sense of morality, and so on.

This can be tricky in the family business, because individual values such as risk tolerance can inform positions that pit members against each other on fundamentals such as whether or not to expand, hiring from the outside, developing new products and strategies, and so on. Often, these parties will sense that there is much at stake and avoid discussing the issues because they want to avoid conflict.

It is easy for non-family and family members themselves to miss the significance that identity-based issues can play in a family business conflict and how important this understanding is to managing family business conflict over time.

When an individual feels that their identity is not acknowledged and respected, their fight-or-flight reflex kicks in, and this can lead to disaster for the family and their business. An awareness and consideration of each other’s core values, and self-defining goals and roles, can go a long way towards preventing such an unraveling.

Knowing your family members well– even if you don’t like them!– helps to manage conflict, because their behavior becomes more predictable. Learn more about the Family Factor and how it protects in times of transition or conflict.

Is identity-based conflict getting in your way? Schedule a free consult or learn more about our conflict management training for families.

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