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Family Business Survival Guide: How to Maintain Healthy Relationships In a Family Business

I grew up in a now 3rd generation family business and married into one on its way to generation 5. While most don’t make it past the 2nd generation, no other organization in the world is more prominent than family businesses—and they are on the rise. According to the US Bureau of the Census, about 90% of businesses are family owned or controlled, and they account for 78% of all new jobs. Coupled with this steady resurgence, businesses in today’s times are built on relationships more than ever. This seems to explain why the complicated dynamics of family business have been showing up on my therapy couch more than ever, and an increasingly hot topic nationwide.

What are some tips for those involved in a family business, directly or indirectly? How can families maintain their family bond amidst the often tricky dynamics of running a business? How can family members best deal with emotions that can arise when members feel a threat to their power and place in the family, or their self esteem? There’s an entire field dedicated to guiding families and their family firms. For the scope of this blog, here are 4 proactive ideas to consider gleaned from my experience in organizational development, family counseling, and more personally, from across the kitchen table.

1. CREATE CLEAR BOUNDARIES AND ROLES

Family businesses are best viewed by the systems in which they operate. While families make up their own system—as do marriages, businesses, and bodies of governance—family businesses are typically comprised of multiple and overlapping systems. So the first step in keeping the relationships healthy within the family, and the family business, is to establish clear boundaries between work and family. This requires more deliberate effort than most realize. It’s not typically an organic separation.

We each tend to have a functional and emotional role in the family, whether based on birth order, personality, or the communication/emotional system that governs the family. Family members working in the business also have a task and emotional role, but not necessarily the same as in the family. Family roles must not be confused with work roles.  If they are, then festering sibling issues can land smack onto the boardroom table, day in and day out.

For the founder or current leader of the business, it’s essential to select partners and employ family in positions based on objective criteria, not on birth order or the roles they play in the family. Furthermore, you’re never going to attract top people if the top jobs always go to a family member. Look what happened to Falstaff Brewery, a once thriving family business who always gave the top job to a family member. When it comes to business decisions, they must remain separate from the family.

This difficult but essential distinction, and many other sensitive issues that naturally arise, can make balancing multiple roles quite a challenge for the senior members— who are typically not only boss, but Mom, Dad, Aunt or Uncle. I love the story of a business owner who kept 2 hats in her office, one with BOSS written on it, the other with MOM. Depending on the topic of conversation, she would pick the appropriate hat to visually indicate the type of conversation about to ensue, sometimes switching hats in mid stream.

A final aspect of keeping work and family separate is the concept of encouraging the next generation to follow their passion. Incoming members must really find themselves and achieve success outside of the family business environment. It’s important to have a sense of grit for one’s achievement and to make sure the family business is a fit.  There are trade offs that must be considered and one’s own true path in life must be honored. I’ve seen many join the family business out of obligation or approval seeking, which only grew into bitterness and depression.  The unconditional love within the family, and trust in each person’s ability to choose their path, must be well established to allow each member to make a true choice.

2. COMMUNICATE OPENLY AND HANDLE CONFLICT WITH DIPLOMACY

To create clear boundaries and roles, and to create a healthy emotional environment, families that have good communication skills fare best. Many times, long-standing poor family communication, or lack thereof, naturally bleeds into the business as well. Unfortunately, healthy communication inside families is not necessarily the norm, both in quantity and quality. That is, too many families don’t schedule family meetings, engage in active listening, attack the problem not the person, handle conflict with diplomacy, spend one on one time together, and/or seek counseling.  

This tendency for weak communication in a family makes the urgency even greater for family business owners to create a culture that prioritizes building better and more frequent communication. Typically, it’s recommended for family values to form the foundation of the family business culture. If not already in place, healthy communication, and handling conflict with diplomacy, is one family value that should most definitely be added in. See more on communication in my previous blogs Tricky Conversations with Sensitive People and Transforming Anger into Growth in Our Relationships

3. SEEK OUTSIDE COUNCIL

Fostering healthy communication, aka managing painful and perpetual conflict, prompts many successful family business owners to seek outside family council. When I say successful, I don’t just mean just fiscally. True prosperity means having it all: thriving business; positive, creative work environment; safe and respectful family and non family relationships; an element of soul in the business valuing giving and unity, versus taking and every man for himself.

One of the biggest mistakes made in family businesses is trying to navigate all facets internally. When moving away from the one tier mom and pop shop and into the next generation(s), outside advisors and consultants can add great value with issues related to finance and strategy, roles, communication, emotional dynamics, entry requirements, recruiting the next generation, compensation, succession planning, divorce, and more. It can be hard to let others in, but objectively wise— and can ease up the jealousy and tendency for members to take things personally.

4. BUILD EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE SKILLS

Family businesses have another system that has great influence on all of the others, and that is they are an emotional system. Emotions are not the problem. In fact, emotions can offer a vital and positive contribution to logic when making decisions best for the long term. But only when a person is self aware. The key is to develop a relationship with our emotions that allows them to be the messengers of our inner truth, rather than in charge of our emotional reactions.

Aggressive, reactive individuals have not developed the pause muscle or learned how to turn inward to sit with and understand what they’re really feeling and why. Rather the tendency is to react outwardly to try and fix a painful emotion instantly. We all have emotionally reactive tendencies and these can certainly become triggered in family business dynamics.  All the more reason why investing in greater emotional intelligence, (i.e., greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-regulation; empathy with others, listening skills, and emotional diplomacy) should become a top priority, for families and for family business success. True prosperity, especially for a healthy family business, requires working from the inside out.


Reference

Hilbert-Davis, Jane and Dyer, W.Gibb, Jr.  (2003), Consulting to Family Business. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.



Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt

Three suicides. One week. All connected to the tragic aftermath of mass shootings. I was asked to speak about survivor’s guilt today, when the loss is unthinkable, when the trauma, unimaginable.  We all want to understand how we humans respond to such overwhelming pain and grief. How can we care for ourselves, Heaven forbid, to find meaning and embrace life again. How we can care for those around us?

Survivor’s guilt, a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shows up much the same way that traditional PTSD does. That is, nightmares, flashbacks, sleep problems, irritability, numbness, meaninglessness and helplessness. Many develop suicidal ideation and impulses.  Those who fair the most poorly and ones with a history of depression, childhood trauma, low self esteem and little social support.  The trauma becomes a compounding experience and often a wake up call to deal with the root issues still wreaking havoc in one’s psyche and nervous system.  

It might sound oversimplified for anyone who has experienced devastation and tragic loss, but below are some suggestions.  

  1. Counseling and mental health care are key.  Every living thing has the energy of healing within, but we often need another human to hold the space to help us awaken that healing energy. Not just at the beginning, but long term, it’s imperative to have mental health check ups and regular support for un-peeling the layers of grief.   We lost our nephew in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2016 that his mother realized all the layers of grief she had buried, escaping into old and outmoded coping mechanisms.  Watching her embrace her recovery process 10 years later is a true testament to the resiliency we possess at the core and to the power of spiritual and personal growth.

  2. Connected to counseling is the importance of processing, rather than suppressing emotions; and identifying and transforming the cognitive patterns and belief systems that might be feeding the guilt, depression, helplessness and despair. 

  3. Don’t be surprised if your unresolved issues show up on the table. Consider this an opportunity, not an easy one, but a true chance  to excavate that which has likely weighed you down for years. 

  4. Allow yourself time to grieve.  Be patient and self loving. Everyone’s process is unique and not to be judged or compared.

  5. Self care is essential and top of the list.  This could mean spending plenty of time with those you love, being in nature, caring for your body, taking your spiritual life to the next level, and all of the above to tend to the deep emotional wounds.

  6. Lean into your routine.  This can help prevent you from falling lower than you can manage and also keeps you connected to other people and the world of life around you. 

  7. Be of service as best you can. Do your best to seek meaning and purpose.  Invest yourself in something you believe in, something that will add value. When we come from a place of sharing and kindness, we benefit far more than those on the “receiving” end.   When empty, you might not be able to give the same as when you feel full. Yet it’s important to push yourself and go against the justifications as to why you can’t or shouldn’t share. 

  8. Deepen into your spiritual path.


When speaking about survivor’s guilt, of course, we must address the guilt aspect.  Why did I survive and not them?  Maybe I could have done something more? I missed opportunities while they were alive to do more, show more, give more. These feelings are common and normal responses to grief overall, but especially strong when the loss was sudden and tragic, much less violent.  A powerful remedy for survival’s guilt is to understand that much of what you’re feeling is a coping mechanism to try and cover up the true vulnerability that is inherent in being a living human being, especially when it comes to deep loss. While I believe we can actually taking charge of our lives far more than most of us grasp, we must also embrace the humility that comes with that which is bigger than us.  The trick is to keep our hearts open while at the same time facing our vulnerability.

Guilt is different than responsibility. Guilt weighs us down, makes us want to do less, speaks lowly messages inside our heads and demotivates us. The energy of guilt comes from a negative force and places a boulder on our back which becomes the foundation for a tower of sadness, shame, anger, and blame. Even when we do good things, but from a place of guilt, we won’t feel inspired or connected to life.  Responsibility, on the other hand, while it might come with feeling the pain of our own missteps, missed opportunities or loss— the energy shifts from passive to active.  From beating oneself up, to “I can do something positive now.”  It’s an energy force on the side of empowerment drawn from the essence of our unlimited soul. When we give from wanting to take responsibility, we come from fullness which opens the gates to the creative mind and blessings flow. So check your thought patterns when you notice feeling guilt, and ask yourself: How can I turn this into something practical, proactive? How can I take responsibility for some aspect of my life, because I believe in myself?”

When it comes to supporting others, don’t be afraid to be vigilant about asking personal questions related to how they are doing.  How are you sleeping?  Do you have nightmares? What kinds of thoughts trouble you the most?  Do you feel like yourself? If you feel concerned about them, be willing to set up an appointment and go with them to a counselor or psychiatrist. Sometimes we need a hand in ours to take brave steps. Be patient, knowing that grief and trauma can feel relentless.  Do your best, then let go of the rest. 

May we all be there for one another and may our days be filled with blessings, even amidst the pain and tragedies of life.  

Self Care When National Headlines Trigger Old Trauma

Self Care When National Headlines Trigger Old Trauma

What can you do if painful memories have come to the surface as a result of the sexual assault Kavanaugh hearings, or any other “me-too” news that rings true to home. First and foremost, BE KIND TO YOURSELF! 

Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

 Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

Some splits between parent and child come from something sudden or dramatic, but most broken ties develop gradually and stem from misunderstandings and less extreme, albeit hurtful, interactions. Let’s talk about what hope there might be if you are estranged from your parent or child. Here's what I recommend…

Job Happiness

Job Happiness

I believe passionately that how fulfilled we feel in our work, especially the extent we feel in line with our values and calling, is paramount not only to our emotional and spiritual well-being, but most definitely to the quality of our relationships.

The Process of Change

The Process of Change

One of my favorite teachings is on certainty and the power of the mind. We cannot change our lives or find our true purpose without first knowing we can, and trusting the good that exists within every challenge, even loss. To reach this level of certainty, we all need an escort—a guide who helps us see the bigger picture, who knows the unlimited potential we can achieve and how to help us get there.