Cause #39 Sibling Rivalry


Sibling rivalry involves any form of competition between siblings.  It can range from good-natured tussling to all-out aggressive/destructive behaviour.  Its roots lie in competition between young siblings – for things, recognition and parental attention – and can start when a baby is introduced into a family, and causes older sibling(s) to fear they’ll be supplanted in their parents’ affections.

Sibling rivalry is a common cause of conflict in family business, where adult siblings may still be competing for deep-seated family / relationship / emotional baggage reasons, to which they add career-based power, status, recognition, remuneration and other, more commercial factors.  In its most extreme forms it creates deep divisions between family members that make family relations highly uncomfortable and can paralyse business decision-making.

Sibling rivalry creates forms of juvenile insecurity that can develop into jealous, competitive, and aggressive behaviours that afflict people for life.  Contributing factors include challenging family environments, extreme personality differences, poor parenting practices and modelling dysfunctional behaviours that prevent individual family members from developing appropriate social, communication, and problem-solving skills, as they mature.  It can be caused by normalising aggressive behaviours, such as teasing and bullying, and failing to teach good negotiation and conflict management practices.

Sibling rivalry should be a positive stimulus that helps children learn respect, problem-solving and negotiation skills. The eminent child psychologist Thaddeus Plum opined, in his unpublished essay: “50 Greatest Parenting Mistakes of the 20th Century”, that the increasingly common provision of ensuite bathrooms to pre-teenage children will cause a form of “accumulated human de-skilling” that will plague future generations.

Sibling rivalry is most common amongst same gender siblings who are close in age, although it’s not uncommon between siblings of widely different ages, amongst different genders, and even amongst cousins – especially when they’re thrown together to work in a family business – with all the extra pressures they invoke.

In a family business context, siblings may see each other (and may be encouraged to see each other) as competitors, rather than as collaborators – so they vie for status, remuneration, power and prestige – instead of constructively leveraging their diversity of talents and interests to form a powerful team.

Sibling conflicts also arise when weaker family members are unreasonably and disproportionately protected in their family business employment by a parent, to the detriment of the business and in apparent breach of normal concepts of fairness and commercial commonsense.  We discuss this “broken wing syndrome”, in greater depth elsewhere in this series.

Sibling rivalry acts as a natural behavioural catalyst for developing social and negotiation skills within the relative safety of a family unit.  As such, it’s an essential educational and developmental influencer that helps to produce resilient and competent individuals.  Interestingly, “only children” who grow up in non-competitive home environments, where they don’t have to learn to cope with sibling rivals, experience a wholly different set of developmental stimulants and challenges, as their personalities mature.  If you know any only children, you’ve probably noticed that they have some distinctively different personality traits to others?  Stereotypes don’t always lie!

If we think we know how and why sibling rivalry occurs, and we can see it happening in a business family, we need to consider: how do we manage it, defuse it, and prevent its re-occurrence?


  1. Recognise the problem for what it is: (a) acknowledge its generic effect as a common cause of family business conflict, and (b) try to identify its specific impact on current circumstances.
  2. Commit to deal with the problem before it gets much worse. Ideally, get everyone to agree to act, without attempting to predict, or dictate, desired outcomes.
  3. Conduct psychometric testing of all relevant parties to inject some science into the process of understanding personality differences between key players, and the effects of those differences on them, and between them.
  4. Use psychometric reports as a basis for opening a discussion about the history of the rivalry. This may take you way back into early childhood memories and can get highly emotional.  Definitely keep the Kleenex handy.
  5. Identify key events, or feelings, that can be accepted by everyone as the explanation for / root cause of the rivalry. It doesn’t matter whether, on a factual / rational / objective basis, the event is truly responsible, provided there’s a sincere belief that it was a cause, it will serve your purpose.
  6. Conduct an adult conversation over said cause(s) with a view to identified perpetrators: (a) accepting responsibility for unintended adverse consequences and, (b) making acceptable amends (which could be anything from an apology to an expensive action) for those consequences. Note that relevant parties need to actively seek ways to apologise and “make amends” – grudging acceptances won’t do.

And just like that, a corrosive dynamic that’s afflicted the lives of the family and the family business, for decades, evaporates – and a whole new phase of family harmony, begins.

(825 words)

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