Communication is key in any business, but essential conversations in family businesses often have the potential to go unaddressed.
Whether it’s the complicated family system dynamics, fear of rocking the boat, generational divides or personality differences, the prospect of bringing up tough topics in a family business context can be daunting.
While such discussions can be fraught, avoiding them altogether isn’t a viable alternative.
“The key is they need to be addressed. Putting them under the rug only makes you trip up,” said Sue Bronson, a Milwaukee-based private practice mediator and instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education.
Bronson recommends putting potentially difficult discussions on the agenda before they have the opportunity to escalate.
“Any good business has regular meetings,” she said. “So, the question is: Are you having regular meetings? And is there a place in those meetings to discuss what’s not working or upcoming challenges or concerns into the future? … It should be a regular part of the meetings. The more you can make it typical instead of atypical, the better.”
If a special meeting is necessary, Bronson said, it’s important for the individual to inform the other person of their concerns and establish an appropriate time to talk.
“The spur-of-the-moment fight in the hallway is not helpful,” Bronson said. “Make it planned.”
A third-party facilitator can play an important role in these discussions.
“It helps in a number of ways. Sometimes people are on better behavior when they’re being witnessed by an outsider,” said Bronson. “Sometimes I can actually repeat the words somebody said (by a family member), but because it came out of my mouth with my tone and not that other person, it can be heard. Because it strips away all the history when I say it.”
A common pitfall of family businesses is the unaddressed tension between the founding generation or current leadership and the successor generation, who hold competing visions for the business.
“Founding members often get started too late and wait until there is a health issue, or maybe a qualified or competent successor is there but they’re not willing to turn over control,” said Bill Edstrom, an executive coach focused on family business members and facilitator of Dean Fowler Consulting’s Forums for Family Business.
Division-of-labor issues – including a lack of respect among family members for the different roles their relatives hold – and succession issues often come up as presenting problems among Bronson’s family business clients, she said.
“This happens a lot in farm families: You’re 60 years old and still waiting to inherit the farm and do it your way – or you’re thinking that you are contributing to a business that you will lead some day and finding it’s not being turned over to you. Or the older generation may feel the younger person is trying to move too fast or in a different direction than what’s been done in the past,” Bronson said.
Each generation should enter discussions with a listening posture and patience, Edstrom said. In situations where there is unresolved conflict, Bronson said she encourages people to look beyond the presenting issue and dig into what’s behind it.
While Bronson’s clients experience a range of challenges – including those involved in workplace disputes, people who are at odds over the care of elderly family members or individuals going through divorce or parenting issues – many conflicts stem from similar root issues: feeling not seen, not heard or not valued.
“We all want to be seen and heard, and we feel like others don’t get us,” Bronson said.
For members of a family business, conflict may bring up core issues of identity, she added.
“Anger is what’s on top, but underneath it is usually hurting,” Bronson said. “So, what can we do to address what the issue is? If you only work at the surface level, you’ll get a resolution but it won’t last because a new issue will come up. It’s something deeper.”
In some cases, those who are part of a family business can revert to relational patterns from earlier in their lives. Compared to non-family businesses, where people are generally able to establish their professional identity with a fresh slate, family business members may be relegated to their childhood roles.
To have productive conversations, colleagues must be intentional to treat one another as adult peers, said Edstrom.
Breaking through outdated paradigms when relating to each other requires self-awareness and differentiating oneself from the family. Personality assessments can help family members better understand themselves and one another, Edstrom added.
“Identifying yourself as an individual is really a key component of this,” said Edstrom. “Understanding yourself and identifying a sense of maturity apart from your parents and apart from the company is really important.”