Mention the topic of family enterprise and nine times out of ten you will get an immediate and loaded response on how difficult it is to work with family. Fraught with problems! Damaging to relationships! Everyone has something to say about it, proffering opinions that come from first-hand experience or not.
This fixed mindset is far from helpful. It is the kind of stereotypical thinking about how families do or don’t work together effectively that only serves to limit the options for finding solutions to important business challenges.
Likewise, terms such as functional, dysfunctional, successful, and failing are easy labels that obscure not only the fluidity of family relationship processes, but also their subtlety. Instead of relying on shorthand terminology—both positive and negative—to describe these basic human processes, we do better to go deeper and more expansive for understanding.
While I would like to believe that family business is rational and performance-based, in my experience family businesses are more often built around a set of highly charged human relationships, a legacy of the generations before them. They are relationships triggered by anxiety and emotionality as the family adapts to change.
In truth, families and family business are living systems and as such share characteristics of all living systems. One such characteristic is interrelatedness: the way that the parts relate to each other and the way the parts relate to the whole. For families, it is the interrelatedness of individual members to each other and to the larger family as a whole.
Having evolved over generations, this interrelatedness creates a heightened sensitivity between family members who are also co-workers, one far more reactive than for coworkers who are not bound by blood.
To add to the challenge, this hyper-sensitivity often operates unconsciously, even as it determines the way in which all the players get along, make decisions, resolve conflict, and develop a vision for the company.
When business is good, the family relationship system uses its heightened sensitivity to the advantage of the business. Family members are able to keep the best interest of the business in mind and overlook differences and past relationship upsets. They respect, understand, and appreciate each other.
In challenging times, however, heightened sensitivity in the system causes family members to become highly reactive to one another, limiting their ability to thoughtfully and creatively address the problems at hand. Solutions become either/or and new ideas are not considered.
Dr. Roberta Gilbert in her book Extraordinary Relationships observes that after water, food, and shelter, it is the quality of our relationships that determines quality of life. The long-term Harvard Study of Adult Development, now headed by Dr. Robert Waldinger concurs, correlating the importance of relationships to happiness, well-being, and creativity.
In a family business too, outcomes depend in large measure on the quality of the relationships between family members. Success or failure depends on the ability to distinguish between functioning in reaction to others and functioning based on thoughtfully-determined principles. Effectiveness, efficiency, and vision are directly related to the ability to know the difference between the two.
Here are some suggestions for developing that ability:
Observe yourself and how you initiate actions and react to others. Identify which relationships you depend on for the ability to act both positively and negatively. Which relationships help you think and which do not? Watch for your heightened sensitivity to other family members. Be vigilant to spot your part in any relationship reactivity.
Develop one-to-one relationships with as many members of your extended family as possible, whether you like them or not. There’s nothing better for building your capacity to live with difference. Complicated and difficult relationships are all part of the living system that is your family and the dynamic context for determining just how you and others respond.
Become a more accurate observer of your family relationships. Learn as much as you can about how the various individuals in your family respond during times of change and heightened stress. Write down your best guess at how emotions travel in your family. Evaluate the accuracy of your guess. This research approach will help you maintain objectivity and a creative decision-making stance that will be very useful when family sensitivities are in full tilt.