The common rap about the family business is: “Don’t get caught in the crossfire of interfamily turmoil.” As an employee, advisor or vendor, you can easily become a victim of the collateral damage. And we all know that we don’t have to be blood relatives to act like family. Consequently, the presumed code of family business survival is: “Don’t choose sides, don’t tell anyone how you really feel, and try to make everyone happy.” Unfortunately based upon my experience, if someone is going to fill a role of significant responsibility in the business and work with family members, it will be impossible not to get burned by the radiation of interfamily turmoil.
When I am called to a family business that is dealing with bickering, rivalry, back-biting and sabotage, I generally encounter weak advisors and weak management. The good ones who offered substantive, credible opinions have either been the casualty of the crossfire or became fed up with wearing body armor for protection from the petty, underhanded, juvenile family crap that surrounded them. They have moved on to more stable environments where there is less emotional napalm and a more solid foundation for building a career.
You can take it to the bank that a family-owned business without family harmony, or for that matter any business that is dominated by bickering, is dealing with a genuine Succession Success® handicap. This discord not only creates an epidemic of heart burn, but also erodes compensation, profits and business value. How can the owners of a business recruit and retain outstanding leadership and management when they cannot find agreement on those radioactive Succession Matrix® issues such as family member employment parameters, family member employee accountability; titles; authority; compensation, demos, time off, rents, dividend distributions, capital outlays, allocation of incentive trips; and so on into the dark side of interfamily and organizational dysfunction. As Dr. Merlot would say, “Some pathetic families could complicate an anvil! They deal only with ‘dysction’ because they have even taken the ‘fun’ out of dysfunction.”
No doubt Dr. Melot’s logic is bizarre, but his point is worth considering: family harmony is not all that complicated. The family conceptually has a simple and inherent organizational harmony advantage: familiarity. The term “familiarity,” which conveys awareness, understanding and knowledge, is taken from the concept of family where members: are aware of how each other acts, understand the perspectives and feelings of other members, and know how they feel about other family members. However, under the reality that none of us had a choice in selecting our primary family, some families just do better than others at harmony. Some related groups are able to take advantage of familiarity while others are not. Based upon my experience, I believe there are two issues that impact the harmony of a family: choices and communication. It should come as no surprise to anyone for me to express that the level of family harmony is dependent upon the quality of communications between family members; both spoken and unspoken.
So let’s address a few hopefully instructive questions. How do we improve the strength of a family business? Answer: expand and strengthen the family.
How do we expand the family that is the core of a business? Answer: establish an attractive, supportive, productive family or in the absence of kin folks, organizational culture that impresses and attracts employees and vendors by demonstrating mutual concern, connectivity and support.
How do we establish an attractive, supportive, productive family or organizational culture? This answer, which supports Dr. Merlot’s “anvil theory,” is simple in concept, but just a tad more complex in application: communicate.
One would think that if there is familiarity, which categorically is a family “given,” there would be communication that would establish an attractive, supportive and productive culture. However, that’s not how our humanity works. The reality is that familiarity breeds contempt. Dr. Merlot affirms this concept with his ridiculous, yet truthful, perspective: “The better I know someone the more opportunity I have not to like them.” Under this mantra one might ask how the hell a family could ever achieve their full business potential. In reply I would have to say that based upon my 40 years as a succession planner, families rarely do reach their potential due to the dark side of familiarity. Lifelong interaction across the hurdles of adolescence and maturity just seems to breed contempt and bring focus to the negative.
So this profundity brings forth the next question: How do we build family and organizational communication that will bring strength, resilience and productivity to the organizational culture? As you surely have anticipated, the irrepressible Dr. Merlot and I have a few suggestions on how to enhance communications that would include:
- Become an aggressive, relentless, predatory communicator. Assume total responsibility for being understood.
Communication is a team sport and therefore on occasion one person has to carry the team. Be an aggressive listener. Don’t ever let it be said that your voice was blocking your understanding. Understand what is at risk; be prepared to do whatever it takes to avoid miscommunication. But don’t be a doormat, don’t babble incessantly and don’t irritate the world with constant repetition. Do have the patience, commitment and resilience to do everything reasonable to eliminate the possibility of misunderstandings.
- Recognize that you are part of any communication problem that you are feeling. Do not assume the problem is with the other person.
Your sister, brother or partner does not make you angry; you choose your reaction to whatever has been conveyed and you are responsible for the fall-out. Good relationships are like marriages; it’s never 50/50, but always 100% both ways. So don’t assume that the other party has got to grow up or grow a brain. Assumptions will keep your relationship dependent upon the other party and you cannot afford to allow a bad relationship to negatively impact Succession Success. Sure, some relationships appear impossible, but you don’t have to admit defeat. Just continue to do everything within your power to improve communication and work on minor improvements.
- Stop stereotyping your sister, parent, partner or whomever.
You can change, so give this challenging party the benefit of the doubt that they can also change for the better. Enter an engagement with the assumption that they are improving in their perspective, patience and temptation to revert to old habits that so unnerve you.
- Be forever mindful that the other party in your communication challenge may not understand everything you say but they will totally understand how you made them feel.
You should be able to affirm from your own experience that the way you feel in a conversation has a tremendous impact upon how well you hear what is being conveyed. Remember there is more to communication than speaking. On that note, ask yourself: “Does my delivery distort communication by conveying, arrogance, apathy, indifference, or insensitivity?” Better yet, to get the real story on your delivery, ask someone you trust that will tell you the truth. After you get over the shock of hearing the truth, consider adjustments to your delivery style so that the other party does not go into the rope-a-dope and miss what you are trying to convey.
- Under the assumption that the other party’s delivery style may be irritating you, recognize your “back-up communications style” and fight it!
When you are pushed “over the edge,” you resort to a back-up style that is intended to protect your emotions and psyche. In your back-up style, you either become a steam-roller, attack-dog, whatever-artist or disappearing-act. To ascertain your back-up style, just reflect on how you reacted the last couple times that special terrorist in your life pushed your buttons. This back-up style is your communications dark side. Learn to fight the natural compulsion to attack, run, acquiesce, etc. Restrain your Dr. Jekyll a little longer or hopefully even avoid the natural tendency altogether because when you go into your backup style, the communication is over! Blood is on the floor and your only hope is for damage control. I guarantee you a little more emotional endurance will bring great relationship rewards. You are tougher than you think and with practice you can stay in control. The longer you remain in your primary style, the more genuine communication will occur and the greater the opportunity for collaboration and succession success. And with reference to the prior point, when you are frustrated by the behavior of someone whom you are trying to communicate, ask yourself, “What am I doing to put them in their back-up style?”
- And finally understand that the critical component to long term, productive, mutually gratifying communication is emotional trust.
In order for someone to hear you they must trust that you are not going to hurt, disrespect or disregard them with your message or your delivery style. Therefore, if you are trying to survive an important but cantankerous, weapons-grade plutonium relationship, ask yourself: “Where is the distrust? What can I do to build more trust? What can I do to stop creating skepticism, doubt and fear?” Maybe the answer is just stay in control and out of your back-up style. Take this to the bank and you will start building emotional trust and enhancing communication and building teamwork.
Yes, the family has a potential organizational harmony and teamwork advantage; familiarity. However as we know this familiarity can work both ways, good or bad. My encouragement is to not take repeated beatings from the bad. Harvesting the good fruit from familiarity is not all that complicated, but it does take a little work, something all car dealers are used to. So before you put on your body armor, consider applying one or more of these coaching points and you will reap the rewards of better communication, greater harmony and succession success.