Cause #9 Relationship Interplays

Family Business can have a “force multiplier” effect on family relationships, especially when interpersonal relationship issues present in the family, often built over many years of family interactions, are projected or absorbed into the business.

Commercial environments provide all the nutrients required to turn historical/personal/domestic niggles into full-blown, competitive, adult conflicts.

Weak, strong and/or distorted character types create challenges for everyone around them – in the business and in the family – as increasingly antagonistic behaviours, fed by frustrations and insecurities, drive them well outside the bell curve of “normal” behaviour.

When emotion, rather than rational thought, drives relationship interplays and their associated behaviours, there’s an awful lot going on – most of it defying logical analysis.  And we know it can’t be safely confronted, head-on.  Underlying motivators need to be understood, and addressed.  This takes time and empathy, in generous measure, neither of which exist in super-abundance in your average business!

The family hierarchy (generations, blood and legal relationships, and birth order) is a major element in this equation, and should be a major focus for anyone trying to understand: (a) what’s happening and, more importantly, (b) what to do about it.

Every family hierarchy commences as an age-based, objective reality, based on birth order.  Increasingly, as the family matures and evolves, the hierarchy becomes more personality-based (personal attributes).  The strong dominate, or support the weak; the generous give, while the selfish grasp; and the wise make good decisions, as the foolish make mistakes.

When there’s enough room and sufficient opportunity, everyone makes (or finds) their own natural space, and then moves in to occupy it.  The result is a happy and harmonious family – able and willing to support any member in need, at any time.

When family members can’t, won’t, or are prevented from moving into their individual spaces, the family structure is at risk of catastrophic collapse or explosion, usually following a progressive melt-down.  This may be terminal for the family.  It will also disrupt the family business if the individuals concerned have significant roles there, and/or material ownership expectations, AND they allow their personal antagonisms to play out in the business forum.  Employees feel (or are) compelled to choose sides, while other stakeholders dive for cover, or circle like sharks, as they smell the blood in the water.


Acknowledge and validate reality.  If this is what’s happening, in the family or the business, it needs to be dealt with, constructively and decisively, to avoid destruction of the family and the business, and damage to individuals.

Start with a careful diagnosis of what’s really happening (objective reality).  There will almost certainly be many layers of cause and effect – some obvious, some less so.

Drill through the layers to establish the root cause(s) of the actions and behaviours on display.

Stop and consider carefully.  Can you deal with what you’ve found, or do you need expert assistance to help one, some or many individual(s) to participate in whatever work out process is required?  Purely therapeutic responses are unlikely to be appropriate, as few businesses can allow solutions to be worked out over years.  Acceptable timeframes are usually expressed in weeks, or months.

However, some individuals will need expert professional help to participate in the planned work out process.  Problem: mention the word “psychologist”, and most key decision-makers (especially parents) will close the conversation down quicker than a meerkat hides from a snake.

It’s usually more palatable to introduce an executive or leadership coach (with psych credentials) to work with the individual(s) on their personal skills.  The ostensible objective is to raise their performance capabilities, and their future prospects in the business.  The undeclared objective is to help them overcome their personal issues so they can actually use whatever skills they do have, in non-destructive ways.

There’s also a reality commitment required in here:  if, after all reasonable efforts have been made, it’s evident that unrealistic expectations, or promises, cannot sensibly be met within the business, the family needs the courage to move to “Plan B” – even if this means exiting one or more individuals from the business, and/or abandoning / modifying long-held succession plans.  This is where tough choices that need to be made for the sake of the business can be alleviated by loving support provided within the family, without compounding and confounding the two.

On a brighter note, if psych assistance isn’t required, use facilitated conversations (rather than an overt mediation process) to resolve tensions and get things back on track.  Since you’re not trying to resolve a single issue, but are rather trying to alter negative behaviours, use examples of recent, real problems to focus analysis, reflection and reconsideration, to effect perspective change.  Follow that with ongoing encouragement and reinforcement to change habits and create sustainable behaviour change.

We may not be able to change people, BUT we can change their behaviours – hopefully, in both their business and family interactions.  It’s usually easier to cement changes in business behaviour, as there’s more external structure in a business than there is in a family.  Changes in family interactions take more conscious effort, over a longer period.  Stick with it …. It does happen!

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