Cause #21 Nature vs Nurture – Parents as Bosses


The debate about whether Nature (genetics: innate qualities you were born with), or Nurture (environmental conditioning: learned behaviours and abilities), has the greatest influence on personality development, is one of the oldest in psychology, dating back to the ancient Greeks. It may even predate the invention of Souvlaki!

Current thinking is that it’s not either/or, but rather both, in an endlessly changing and complex mix that impact on individuals’, somewhat malleable, core character.

During the growing up years, Nature and Nurture interact inside the Family System to shape individual personalities and nuclear family dynamics. The results (human outcomes) are a common cause of conflict when transferred without careful contemplation, into a Family Business System. Almost inevitably, family-based personality differences generate tension when they land in a wholly different business environment.

This is yet another manifestation of the Family Business Curse: “Family members who work together, are bound together on a wheel of fire – it can warm their hearts, or crush their dreams”. There’s a double whammy at work here, which is rarely thought through carefully enough, in advance:

  • Parents at home become boss(es) at work and,
  • Siblings at home become co-workers, and professional colleagues.

Parenting styles that are appropriate, or are at least relatively harmless in a home environment, may not translate at all well into a business setting.  Cause #14 in this series explored parenting styles in more detail, identifying them as: (a) Dictatorial; (b) Authoritative; (c) Permissive; and (d) Uninvolved. That earlier article went on to note that these styles are further influenced by whether parents are: (a) Responsive or Unresponsive; or (b) Demanding or Undemanding.

In a business context: Nurture conflicts with Reality when unconditional love from one sector of the family (usually Mum) clashes with the boss’s demands for better performance (usually Dad). This throws mother against father; one parent against one or many children; and siblings against each other.

Many sibling conflicts arise when one or more parents do more to protect (nurture) a week or needy sibling, compared to what they do for others who are both more independent and more resilient (see Causes #11 to #13: “Broken Wing Syndrome”).  To the stronger siblings it looks like favouritism; if feels unfair, and it creates resentment.

Excessive, overly-prolonged support tends to increase a child’s dependency on their parents for life skills, financial sustenance, and employment security. Stronger, more independent siblings lose respect for their cossetted, under-performing brothers and sisters who get treated equally, or even preferentially, by one or more sympathetic / worried / guilty (?) parents at home, and by the same people, acting as bosses, at work.

Where siblings are alert to unequal efforts, commitment and contribution, they’re often blind to a very real inequality in natural abilities.   This is an ironic twist to the observation that: “Equal ain’t Equitable”, as discussed in Cause #7.


“Modern” business cultures often claim to be inclusive and collaborative – moving closer to the ideal for a family group, and further away from an “old-style” business.  Those businesses still have different aspirations, and end goals, to Families.

Strategies to prevent both Nature and Nurture from creating future conflict, or from  feeding present conflict in a family business, include:

  1. For parents of young children, who hope they will have some involvement with the family business at some future date:

Family play and learning should consciously incorporate resilience training – teaching and requiring personal  independence by helping children to learn how to:

  1. Own their own issues and challenges.
  2. Choose how to deal constructively with those issues and challenges and,
  3. Accept responsibility for handling their own stuff, rather than running to Mummy, and/or Daddy, for a fix, and a cuddle.
  4. For parents of older / grown-up children:
  5. Discuss concepts of adult independence and resilience – in home life and in business – with individuals and as a family group.
  6. Include “independence” and “resilience” in family values, to complement other values.
  7. Obtain expert coaching support if required and/or if this conflicts with the family’s traditional values.
  8. For parents with one, some, or all children already working in the family business:
  9. Include qualities of personal resilience, at an appropriate level, in “Required Attributes”, per formal job descriptions (HR to implement).
  10. Provide in-job training and/or counselling, as required. Preferably do this for all staff to avoid singling out family members. Ensure that all employed family members undertake training to provide them with a common language and a level playing field.
  11. Openly assess how things are working out with all relevant family members. If there are real and present issues – deal with them, before they develop into major conflicts.

Like puppy training, these strategies require as much training of parents, as of children.

In all good conscience, parents should never seek self-validation through the conscious, or unconscious emotional domination of their progeny… but sadly, some do.

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