Hope springs eternal


Decades of research have not stopped families from going into business with unrealistic assumptions.


The invitation to reflect on how our field has changed over 20 years stumped me, at first. (By “our” field, I mean family/business dynamics, and more narrowly: resolving chronic conflicts.)

In an age of mind-boggling technological, geopolitical and environmental change, we tend to forget that there are timeless constants in human life. Written history going back at least 3,000 years shows that family members are no more likely to change the ways they enter into business relationships than couples are to change the ways they fall in love, marry or make babies: largely irrationally.

Experienced consultants' warnings are no more likely to stop family members going into business for the wrong reasons, or with unrealistic assumptions destined for conflict, than humans are to eliminate war, knavery or population explosions. We old-timers may have learned to see sooner and more efficiently where to intervene: when to apply the reframes, transferences and eye-opening exercises of both family therapy and individual psychological assessment and counseling. But as is true of so many professions, I'm not sure we've become better at shortening that learning curve for newcomers to the field.


Less dogmatic

It's my impression that those of us who have been preaching mental health to family firms for years are less certain about general principles than when we had few cases under our belts. I suspect most of us preach fewer dogmatic dos and don'ts than we did 20 years ago to guide a founder when hiring a son or daughter, or contemplating the transfer of ownership, or giving the in-laws votes on a family council.

Longtime participants in the annual conference on Psychodynamics of Family Business, for example, discuss cases more in terms of a process of discovering the unique intervention that may help a particular family system at a particular stage, than a checklist of factors thought to be healthy vs. risky. For example, Kim Schneider Malek says the Schneider Consulting Group now uses the “three circle” distinctions among ownership, family and management sectors more as a tool for discovering with clients how to frame the different roles in each unique family system than as a matter of bringing education to them.

Another example: In an early column in this magazine, I asserted that resolving family conflict was critically different from settling disputes between unrelated parties. I now see that what sociologists call “incompatible narratives” between nations or communities can similarly trap relatives into hopelessly rigid positions, even when they care about one another and long for familial closeness. Like warring religious groups or cultures anywhere in the world, they can't compromise without giving up deeply held beliefs about their characters, histories and moral justifications.

Take the case of a son who needs more money and desires more authority than his father is prepared to cede. The son's arguments are based on promises he believes were made to him and rewards denied to him over many years. Unwilling to negotiate win/win outcomes based on present circumstances, shared goals and compromises, his father gets defensive about the past and recites his own tale of disappointment going back to the son's dismal performance since middle school. With such incompatible narratives, the son will never convince Dad to acknowledge having cheated him for decades. We have a “that's my story and I'm sticking to it” situation. Alike, unfortunately, each demands a win/lose outcome, to vindicate past wrongs. Rarely will they achieve anything but lose/lose unless, perhaps, we learn to adapt versions of the lengthy reconciliation processes that succeeded in South Africa and Northern Ireland.


Small changes can make a difference

In short, I can't say whether we in the family business dynamics field are more effective dispensers of conflict-reducing medicine than we were 20 years ago. I know we're not as effective as we hope to be. Human beings change only a little, and slowly. Any alteration in behavior meets new resistance, within the self as well as from those with whom one lives or works. Fortunately, the consequences of small changes in individual behavior can make a significant difference to the success of a team, so it sometimes requires only modest individual changes (and the desire for a shared narrative) to produce gradual systemic progress.

Hope springs eternal, and family members will continue to enter into business partnerships as long as there are people on our planet. As with marriage and procreation, if rational judgment plays a role in their determination to take on these known challenges, so does a hefty dose of denial.           


Kenneth Kaye, Ph.D.