My Family Business: Brother, Ally, or Monster?

Business Families

Every family business has a business family sitting behind it, BUT: family business makes no sense – because what makes for a great business generally conflicts with what makes families happy.  This fundamental dichotomy can produce all-conquering family teams, conflict-infused relationships, and everything in-between.

Business Family relationship dynamics can get very muddy, because families are supposed to be places of love, trust, mutual respect, nurture, support, growth, and happiness.  When they aren’t that, our whole belief in how the world should operate comes under challenge.

Contextual Definitions

Brothers – male individuals who share common parents with others.  “Brothers” (in arms) describes close companions undertaking challenging activities.  “Brother” implies intimate connectedness between individuals for purposes of sharing risk and experiences.

Allies – people who can be trusted to provide assistance, support, resources, and aid, on a reliably consistent basis.  Alliances are more formal relationships than friendships as they imply, or actually include, obligations to provide active support.

Monsters – strange and horrible creatures that are unusually cruel, and wicked.  The origins of the word mean “evil omen.”


One of the main attractions of working in a family business lies in the opportunity to work with siblings.  All well and good if said siblings share values and objectives and get along well together – complementing each other’s skills and attributes to leverage strengths and overcome weaknesses – they’ll be a high trust, high-performing, unstoppable team that should be able to conquer any challenge life or business throws their way … and they’ll enjoy the journey!

But it’s not so great when they’re not aligned, and one is only there to protect a parent, or an inheritance, or to prevent their sibling from getting yet another one over them, or because they don’t have any better employment options.

Negative motives are rarely the sole cause of troubled family dynamics, which generally contain elements of sub-optimal parenting styles and unfortunate past and present decision-making.  These in turn, and usually without negative intent, produce developmental delays where normally intelligent individuals don’t mature into full-functioning adults with the emotional intelligence required to lead happy lives, especially inside a business family pressure pot.

Delayed maturity and low emotional intelligence are prime indicators of eventual conflict and the likely failure of any family business where self-generated perceptions of being in constant competition with higher-performing siblings exacerbate feelings of negative self-regard.

Add the risk that low emotional resilience may eventually lead to a serious emotional breakdown, but not before unconscious self-protection measures encourage denial, avoidance, and even delusionally-influenced responses to what’s really happening.

It’s not hard to see where such a family is heading.

In a family business context:

Brothers.  Demonstrate unconditional love, endless understanding, unwavering patience, and ongoing support for weaker siblings in all situations … until they don’t.  The tipping point may coincide with the passing of a parent, urgent commercial challenges, increasing financial stress, spousal complaints, increasingly disruptive activism in the business, and/or assertion of equal rights and entitlements by a less than equally capable, under-performing sibling.

Or maybe the emotional well just runs dry after years of generous drawing?

Allies.  Are more calculating than Brothers, replacing unconditional support with a more rationally balanced, mutual benefits system that levies accepted behavioural and alignment obligations on all parties.

Because we’re talking about families, there may be little in the way of objective balance between those obligations – which is no impediment to score-keeping by siblings.

Failure to honour express or implied obligations is taken as a breach of trust from which it can be very hard to recover.

Monsters.  With roots reaching back into childhood, sibling rivalry and broader family dysfunction turns some brothers into monsters who seem compelled to tear everything down, themselves included.

Monstrous brothers have a knack for pushing buttons and creating family wedges. They often draw doting and concerned parents into the fray – turning the most objectively offensive and nonsensical situations into travesties of fairness, with epic consequences for family harmony, and tragic outcomes for the family’s business.


Dealing with a monstrous brother can require the patience of Job, the wisdom of Confucius, the negotiating skills of Henry Kissinger, and the resilience of Nelson Mandela.  Or, the family can own its reality and deal with the hand it’s been dealt – by recognising monstrous behaviours for what they really are, and responding accordingly.

Family business best practice mandates a strong separation between family thinking and business thinking.  The result should be a business-first business culture, and a family-first family culture, where commercially rational decisions are made in the business, based on “normal” business thinking, that can be supported back in the family by emotionally appropriate and humanely necessary decisions, in context.

This allows the business to survive and thrive as a business, so it can support the family’s handling of its human challenges, as a family.

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