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When Family Dynamics are Dangerous for Your Family Business

It is a problem for the Family Business when family issues intrude on business success and wealth preservation. This makes managing family dynamics to maintain both business success and wealth preservation the key “soft skill” needed to keep family dynamics from derailing the business and dissipating wealth.

Back in the forties Kurt Lewin developed something called Force Field Analysis that asks what are the “driving forces” and what are the “restraining forces” when working toward the goal? In other words, what are the forces that can get in the way and what are the positive resources that can make this family business successful? What is the cost/benefit of various strategies for change? What values does the business and family carry and also what differences or variations are there in those values that can help and also hinder moving forward not just in the immediate business situation but through future generations.

People often think that we just need to get more forces to push towards the goal, but there is always enough energy towards the goal. The issue is how do you modify the restraining forces, the negative things? How do you remove or work with the stumbling blocks? When do the stumbling blocks begin to threaten the business?

Here are danger signs that indicate family dynamics need some skilled attention.

People don’t feel heard
When the response to their ideas always seems to be, “we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work”.
When people are interrupted or never have the opportunity to speak.
When they are never asked for their ideas or opinions and only seem to be there to receive another’s opinion.
As a facilitator you try to eliminate automatic responses, catch interruptions and give the person who was interrupted a chance to speak, and promote asking for the ideas of the whole group.

People are vague so that they won’t be attacked
When people don’t want to be too specific about things it’s often because if they do, they might get attacked. As a facilitator you try to help people to not be quite as vague and check interactions that seem like attacks.

People feel isolated and misunderstood
If someone in the group just continually focuses on the task at hand and tries to shut off dialogue or goes back to task and tries to minimize the interpersonal relationships it can create a situation where the person who was shut off or who had the relationship minimized, will try to figure out who they can talk to, and then only talk to that person.

This creates a triangle which excludes the rest of the family or the group. If there is a confidant who he or she agrees with, when there is enough agreement, they create an alliance (in technical terms they are now creating a sub-group/system), but it is private. When this situation happens, in the larger group it can seem like there is an agreement about some plan or ideas, but the sub-group is merely being compliant. When out of the meeting they will voice their real thoughts. Those patterns can be dynamite as they create gossip and can sabotage the best proposals. As the facilitator you try to spot potential triangles and create space that safe enough for the conversation to happen in the whole group.

What you can do
If you are part of the group in these situations take a breath, step back for a moment and cool any reaction, then ask a person to tell you more about that, or explain that you are not sure you know exactly what is meant. Ask to hear what the person who didn’t get the chance to speak wanted to say.

People respond to those kinds of reactions and start to feel like somebody is actually interested in what they have to say. Interestingly, that leads to increased possibility that they will be open to hearing someone else’s ideas.

Ian Macnaughton Recognized for Outstanding Achievement

Communication Problems -- and Solutions -- in a Nutshell