Connecting and Separating Family and Business (Part II)

Connecting and Separating
Family and Business (Part II)

Connecting and Separating Contexts

Such contextual notions can provide a port of entry into the unique complexities of family businesses. It should be clear at this juncture that there are no simple, objective containers (contexts) called “family”and “business” within which people behave and make meaning. To reiterate the points made above, contexts:

  • are critical in the creation and determination of meaning;  
  • are constructed relationally and interpretedindividually;  
  • often cannot be “pinned down” unambiguously;  
  • are themselves contextualized (thus making paradox possible); and  
  • are consistencies or stabilities in a world of flux, a kind of relational “constant” woven of ephemeral strands (and thus are themselves subject toalteration when the changing of one or more of the strands changes).

With such ideas in hand, consultation can be approached as a process of playing with the relationships within and between family and business,of separating and connecting, of creating and altering contexts.

Separating Family and Business

In a sense, the members of a family business have the same issues with which to contend as consultants–that is, what to make of the boundary demarcating and joining the different domains of their family and business. Many, if not most of the challenges faced by people working and “familying” in these enterprises may be experienced in terms ofdifficulties in the ways the business and family are or are not divided in two or joined as one.

If the dividing properties of the boundary are obscured, familyexpectations, obligations, habits, etc., may contextualize business interactions or vice versa. A father and son who are partners in abusiness venture may find it problematic when discussions at work are organized familially (with the son, perhaps, deferring to his father whenhe could or should be challenging him), and/or when activities of thefamily take on the feel of management meetings (with filial respect, sayduring Sunday dinner, giving way to partner-like challenges). In suchinstances, it may be helpful for the family business members to find more effective ways of demarcating one context from the other.

It is important to remember that contexts are socially, notphysically constructed–they are created and maintained in relationship. Neither dining- nor board-room are thus themselves contexts; however, each could become what Bateson (1972) would term acontext marker, a signifier about a context, a part of aninteractively composed meaning system that classifies those veryinteractions, that indicates what sorts of messages can and should be exchanged and how they are to be interpreted. In the example offeredabove, the physical locations of the father and son’s conversations were seemingly not serving as context markers for either family orbusiness, as relationship patterns appropriate to one context wereappearing in the other.

Context markers are types of metamessages–they are necessary signs or signals that contribute to the categorizing of contexts, that helpdifferentiate this context from that:

In human life…there occur signals whose major functionis to classify contexts…and note immediately that…there are also “markers of contexts of contexts.” For example: an audience is watching Hamlet on the stage, and hears the hero discuss suicide in the context of his relationship with his dead father,Ophelia, and the rest. The audience members do not immediately telephonefor the police because they have received information about the contextof Hamlet’s context. They know that it is a “play” and have received thisinformation from many “markers of context of context”–the playbills, theseating arrangements, the curtain, etc., etc. (Bateson, 1972, pp.289-290)

Context markers work in a synecdochal way: A part of a context–such as, in the case of a play, the greeting by the usher, the spatial relationship between stage and audience, the changes in lighting, the hush that pervades as the curtain rises, and so on–metacommunicatively invokes the whole of it. Although such messages are often communicatedwithout conscious intent in the course of our daily interactions, theycan also be used purposefully.

A hypnotherapist may, for instance, signalthe beginning of “trance” by modifying the tonality and tempo of his orher voice and/or by asking the client to sit in a different chair; theparalinguistic alterations and the change in seating each serve asmarkers for the context of trance and can thus be helpful for generatinghypnotic experiences.

Similarly, family business consultants can help clients findsignificant markers for differentiating family and business contexts. Oneof the most common examples is the use of first names at work. As onefather/boss put it:

While we are at the office or calling our customers, (mydaughter) always addresses me as Roger; it is businesslike and provides her with equality. When we leave the business, I am once again “Daddy,”and that appellation tends to submerge any tensions we may haveexperienced. It worked for me and my father, and it works for me andJessica. (Anonymous, 1990, p. 191)

The choosing of an appropriate marker is, of course, best left to the clients themselves. A man in his late forties complained of family tension in the real estate business he shared with his wife, also in her late forties, and their twenty three-year-old daughter. The business was prospering, but the man was concerned about a lack of family harmony that had previously existed. Everyone got along well at work, but haddifficulty relaxing with each other once they got home.

When the question of separation between home and family wasintroduced, the husband replied that no such boundary existed. Whenasked, “What have you been thinking of to mark the difference, but havenot yet tried?,” the businessman brightened and spun out a simple,poignant idea. He would prefer coming home to a kitchen table unclutteredby company papers, because these reminders of unfinished work spoiledtheir evenings as a family. A clean kitchen table became a significantmetaphor for separating day from evening, work from home, business fromfamily.

Another couple agreed that their hour-long car rides to and from their jointly-run office would be treated as a special transition time, whereconcerns and ideas about either or both business and family could bebrought up and explored. With their car serving as a place where theco-mingling of family and business issues was actively encouraged, the patterns of relationship woven at home and workplace could be eachmore freely distinct from one another. Once the connection between family and business is acknowledged and supported as legitimate and necessary(and time is set aside for its purposeful realization), the comfortableseparation between them can more easily follow.

Connecting Family and Business

In family businesses where contextual separation is an importantissue, family and business will always only be distinct in relation to each other. This means that a marker which invokes one of the contexts may, when missing, invoke the other by virtue of its absence. It also means that unrelenting efforts to separate the two contexts can have an effect opposite to that intended.

Consider a demonstrably confident and assertive woman executivestruggling to have her father/boss treat her with the same respect shedemands, and receives, from most everyone else in the family’s company.The father values her opinions and trusts her decisions, but every once in awhile he “slips” and speaks to her in a way that leaves her feeling like an admonished daughter rather than a vice-president.

Having triedvarious ingenious, but unsuccessful, ways to encourage her father to takeher seriously–including having long talks with him, purchasing moreconservative (“executive-type”) clothing, and taking a course inassertiveness training–the daughter is seriously considering leaving the firm. If anything, the father has increased his paternal communicationsin response to her redoubled efforts to establish herself as”not-just-a-daughter.” She feels frustrated and helpless.

Self-confidence is, in part, communicated by the ability to laugh at oneself. Thus, perhaps the best way for the woman to change her interactions with her father would be to stop trying to seriously erase her “daughterhood,” and instead highlight it in some playful way.

What might happen if she took to showing up at meetings with her father with a teddy bear in hand, one that he had given her as a young child? Byintentionally invoking the family bond between her and her father, thedaughter could stop waiting anxiously for the next time he would embarrass her. The more proactive she becomes in marking their familialconnection, the less opportunity or necessity he will find to do so. Thesuccessful separation of family and business happens within the contextof their comfortable connection.

One of the benefits of thinking about a family business as a connection between two different contexts is that successes in one set of relationships can provide clues and ideas for how to address difficulties in the other. What works in family predicaments can be used as a resource for solving problems in the business, and vice versa.

For example, a couple in their early forties who together ran a successful tree businesswere nevertheless fighting and struggling desperately at home over theways in which they handled the wife’s two boys from a previous marriage.Both of the children, in their early twenties, were heavily involved with drugs; one was on his way to prison and the other lived mostly on the streets. The husband advocated “tough love” and was critical and angry with his wife’s inability to “turn off the faucet,” to keep the boys from exploiting them. They had seen therapists for years, but were always disappointed with the results.

The consultant explored how the couple dealt with their nine employees; although their management styles were drastically different (she was nurturing, he, distant), they had found that each way of relating complemented the other most effectively. Their ability to make their differences work in their business was pointed out, and it was suggested that they could find ways of applying this same expertise in their home situation. Subsequently, the couple were, for the first time, able to take a joint stand in relation to the sons, and they reportedprogress at home that they never thought possible.

Sometimes problems are not unique to either the family or the business, but occur in both. The consultant can then look for commonalities in the contexts and help clients to, as it were, photographtwo birds with one camera. The best scenario is to orient clients to a difficulty in a way that allows them to find their own solutions.

A husband and wife who ran a restaurant-supply business out of their home requested help with what had become an impossible situation. The man said that he was losing his temper many times a day–at his wife, at his suppliers, at his customers, at his son–and these “fits” (as he calledthem) were undermining both family and business relationships.

He felt ashamed of his behavior and was chagrined by his helplessness to do anything about it. Again and again he had resolved not to blow up, but he always failed. The wife was seriously contemplating “going on strike,” their fifteen-year-old son had recently left the home because he “couldn’t take the fighting any more,” and customers, tired of being verbally abused, were cancelling orders.

The man was asked to carefully attend to the contextual circumstances of his temper outbursts. Did he “lose it” more with his wife around work issues or family issues? Was it easier or more difficult to begin yelling at a customer than at his son? Was he more likely to unleash his anger with a long-term customer, or with one that he didn’t know well? Theissue of temper was thus used to organize questions around the connectionand separation of family and business.

When the couple returned the following week, the husband was perplexed. He had not lost his temper once. He couldn’t remember the last time he had gone a single day without a blow-up, never mind an entire week.

The consultant replied that he couldn’t be helpful with the man losing his temper if he didn’t lose it, so he suggested that the husband purposefully have temper fits in both family and business contexts, and come back and report on what events helped serve as triggers. The wifewas asked to participate as well. Could she observe him with customers and with her, and notice differences in the timing and circumstances of the outbursts? And if she found him not losing his temper, could she help him in some way so that we could gather the necessary data?

During the following weeks, the man and his wife disagreed about many things and he continued to encounter significant frustrations with his business, but his temper outbursts ceased completely. He laughingly accused the consultant of using “reverse psychology,” and said he didn’t trust that the change would last. But over the next months it did endure, and the couple were able to enjoy significant alterations in both their personal and professional relationships.

His success with his customers gradually gave him confidence that he could be different with his family, and his success with his family allowed him to trust that he could more effectively deal with his customers and suppliers. The consultant encouraged the husband not to completely lose his ability to lose his temper, as there might be times in the future when it would come in handy.