The “State of the Family” in Family Owned Businesses

March 11, 2015 11:00 am Published by

As I continue to work with families and family owned businesses across the country, I have noticed some themes about the “State of the Family” that I’d like to share.

Essentially, there are three broad categories into which families seem to fall:

1. Healthy, functioning families. To be honest, this seems to be the smallest proportion of families (not surprisingly). These families have:

  • healthy relationships within the family (usually across two generations; it is rare to see three generations where there is no major conflicts);
  • individuals within the family who are doing reasonably well with their own life pathway (career, school, parenting);
  • communication which is direct between individuals and family groups, appropriately open and honest (not brutally so), and conflicts are managed reasonably well [note: there are conflicts];
  • a balance between: a) shared life and common family values, and b) freedom to live one’s own life and have differing values than the larger family;
  • the ability to be proactive and have long-term vision, both individually and together as a family.

2. Dysfunctional families ridden with conflict. The core characteristic of families who are not doing well seems to be that of having numerous and serious broken relationships within the family, and the inability to resolve these conflicts. They may be within a nuclear family unit, across generations, or with new family members (sons-in-law, mothers-in-law, step parents, etc.).

I have written previously about dysfunctional individuals, but here are common behaviors of dysfunctional families:

  • communication is primarily indirect (talking “through” others) and with lots of guilt and anger messages being sent;
  • blaming others, making excuses, and not accepting responsibility for one’s own part in a conflict is rampant;
  • usually, there is a sense of being overly controlling by at least one parental figure, followed by a major breaking in the relationship (or ongoing battles) when a family member does not follow their wishes;
  • a long standing pattern of “rescuing” (not holding accountable for choices made) that facilitates individuals continuing to make poor choices in their lives.

3. Families that are generally okay but who have significant challenges. Most of us (including families) are “average” – we are managing (sometimes just surviving), but we have significant challenges. These families have:

  • some healthy relationships within the family and some relationships with significant challenges;
  • parts of the extended family may be doing well, while some branches of the family have serious struggles they are battling (broken relationships, addictive behaviors, poor financial management);
  • periods of time where life is generally going well, followed by (usually shorter) periods of “crisis”; the more responsible members of the family work hard to keep the family afloat (sometimes with aid from the extended family);
  • varying degrees of weariness, hope, perseverance, envy of others, and support (both from within the family and from others) – both across family members and within the same individuals across time.

After reading these descriptions, some may ask: “So what? What’s the point? You have the family you have.”

One major point is this: there are some actions and behaviors that we, as individuals, and corporately as families can strive to improve – that will lead to healthier relationships and families over time. I would suggest the following starting points for each of us to reflect on:

  • Take responsibility for yourself and your feeling responses to others. Blaming, making excuses and denying your part in a problem doesn’t lead to anywhere positive.
  • Work on your relationships. Don’t give up. Learn how to forgive (and do so). Realize that others are different from you, and that is ok (actually, it is good.) Totally cutting yourself off from someone else makes it virtually impossible to heal the relationship.
  • Clearly, you cannot solve all the problems in your family, but almost always you can take some steps to make things a little bit better.

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For those who are struggling in your current workplace (whether it is a family-business or not), check out two resources that could help:

1. Our book, Rising Above a Toxic Workplace: Taking Care of Yourself in an Unhealthy Environment; and

2. The Ratings Of Toxic Symptoms scale, which will give you an idea of “how bad” your current workplace really is, identify the top three areas of concerns, and point you to resources to help in those areas.

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March 11, 2015 11:00 am

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