Playing With Contextual Complexity: Relational Consultation With Family Businesses (Part I)

Playing With Contextual Complexity: Relational  Consultation With Family Businesses (Part I)

by Douglas G. Flemons, Ph.D. and Patricia M. Cole,Ph.D.
Nova Southeastern University

Over the course of ten months in the late 1970s, two of the most important figures in the field of family therapy, Luigi Boscolo and Gianfranco Cecchin (the Milan Associates), worked with Irving Borwick (a corporate director at ITT) and Bruce Reed (from the Grubb Institute in London) to investigate the applicability of Milan systemic family therapy concepts and techniques to business organizations.

The group concluded that there was no simple translation between the worlds of family therapy and organizational consulting; they considered their work with management teams unsuccessful and they disbanded (Borwick, 1986). Borwick (1986) came away from his collaboration with the Milan Associates with the realization that families and business organizations are significantly different systems and that “therapists who enter into business organizations must begin to develop new maps and new roles” (p. 439).

Therapeutic consultation with families and organizational consultation with businesses are each complex processes, requiring different sets of expertise and experience. What then are family therapists to do when they are consulting with a system that is simultaneously a family and a business? Family therapists, along with a variety of other “helpers,” are providing an increasing amount of consultation for family businesses (Robichaux, 1990). But do we have the necessary maps, the necessary tools to responsibly offer assistance?

This paper charts a way of thinking about and working with these systems that aims at respecting the integrity of both family and business and the complexity of the relationship between them. It will present a model for understanding the sorts of confusions and concerns that arise when family and business become knotted in emotionally distressing and/or financially troubling ways, and it will suggest some ideas for how to help with the process ofuntangling. It begins with a brief discussion of the place of family businesses in the American economy, proceeds with a brief philosophical justification for taking a relational stance to understanding, and then uses this discussion to begin the process of constructing a relational approach to family business consultation.

Family Businesses

Contrary to the stereotype, family businesses are not just small “mom and pop” operations–not only have familial relationships become much more varied, with daughters and wives taking positions of responsibility that only a few years ago were strictly the domain of fathers and sons, but the market share of the American corporate pie that family businesses enjoy is truly staggering.

If, following Rosenblatt, de Mik, Anderson, and Johnson (1985), we define a family business as “any business in which majority ownership or control lies within a single family and in which two or more family members are or at some time were directly involved in the business” (p. 4), then it is possible to assert that more than 90% of America’s million businesses are family controlled, accounting for approximately 40% of the gross national product (Galagan, 1990).

In the last five years more attention than usual has been directed toward family business (Dyer, 1986; Jaffee, 1990; Rosenblatt et al., 1985). For the first time, large numbers of family business founderssimultaneously face retirement, and succession issues take on great importance for the economic future of the companies themselves and the economy to which they contribute. The roots of the present-day situation can be traced back to post World War II when an influx of returning GI’s started their own businesses. Presently, as these founders prepare for retirement, their enterprises face extinction unless a smooth transition can be made from first generation to second.

An example of a difficult transition involves a father who, on paper, has turned over the business to his daughter, but wishes to remain involved in the day-to-day operations. If not delicately handled, this type of situation can quickly devolve into a leadership tug of war; in the wake of such a struggle, the daughter might well choose to leave the company entirely.

Such succession issues, though not the focus of this paper, highlight an important point: If it is true, as Borwick (1986) claims, that businesses and families are very different sorts of organizations, then it is equally true that family businesses are not a simple amalgamation of the two. Business relationships are different by virtue of being among family members, and family relationships must somehow accommodate business-related issues.

Thinking and Working Relationally

Family therapists, particularly those influenced by the cybernetic ideas of Gregory Bateson (1972), have long contended that an individual’s problems are best understood in the context of his or her family relationships (e.g., Haley, 1963; Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1978; Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974). A man, for example, may describe his feelings of depression in intrapsychic terms, but hispsychological/physiological experience and the way he understands and “shows” it, is part of a communicational web of relationships that he participates in creating and maintaining. It thus makes good contextual sense to consider the man’s symptoms in relation to the beliefs, attitudes, and responsiveactions of his family members.

It is in this sphere, in the relations between family members, that family therapists typically direct their suggestions for change. Rather than attempting to help the man personally explore the historical causes of his depression, a family therapist would play with ways in which the interactive patterns involving the man, his defined depression, and his family, could in some way be altered.

The family business consultative model offered here uses such contextual assumptions as a template for organizing a relational approach to working with clients. However, the approach is more directlyinfluenced by Bateson’s philosophical insights than by the idiosyncratic ways in which they have been adopted and adapted by particular family therapy theorists and clinicians. Following Boscolo and Cecchin (Borwick, 1986), we believe that family therapy models are too context specific to be directly applicable to other organizations. Bateson’s ideas, however, are abstract enough to be differentially adaptable to any system of relationships.

A more in-depth philosophical discussion of the therapeutic implications of Bateson’s ideas, and their elucidation in terms of family business consultation, have been offered elsewhere (Flemons, 1991; Flemons & Cole, 1992). Here, our intent is focused on describing the particular way in which ideas about relationship can be used to organize a consultant’s work with clients. Still, it is important to make brief mention of the philosophical justification for taking a relational stance.

There are two primary ways of supporting the contextual claim that meaning resides in relationship, both of which have to do with the business of knowing. The first concerns the nature of perception, the second, language. We perceive, according to Bateson (1972, 1979), not things, but relationships:

In the world of ideas, it takes a relationship, either between two parts or between a part at time 1 and the same part at time 2, to activate some third component which we may call the receiver.What the receiver (e.g., a sensory end organ) responds to is a difference or a change. (1979, p. 106)

Language, too, is relationally structured. Christopher Norris (1987) considers it “a cardinal precept of modern (structural) linguistics that signs don’t have meaning in and of themselves, but by virtue of their occupying a distinctive place within the systematic network of contrasts and differences which make up any given language” (p. 15). Given that knowing and understanding are shaped by perception and language, it is clear that no known thing exists in isolation, that meaning is contextually determined: “This” makes sense only in relation to “that.”

The practical implications of such an understanding reverberate throughout the consultative process. The consultant’s attention never settles on an isolated person, symptom, idea, problem, or solution, butconstantly questions how each derived “piece” of information fits with or connects to others. The overarching question informing this process has to do with how family and business contexts are each separately and jointly defined and related.

The Relation between Family and Business

Theorists have, for the most part, conceptualized the sorts of problems that can arise in family businesses in terms of the incompatibility between family and business roles. Constructs such as “role conflict” (Salganicoff, 1990), “role carryover” (Rosenblatt et al., 1985), and “role confusion” (Freudenberger, Freedheim, & Kurtz, 1989) have been offered as means to explain what happens, for example, when a boss acts like a father, or a father a boss.

The notion of role allows one to describe the different relationship demands of a family and a business from the perspective of each of the individual participants. A father (a role that is defined in relation to the role of child) is generally expected to act differently than a boss (a role defined in relation to that of employee). When one role overlaps with another, contextual confusion can reign supreme.

What is a comptroller to do when the CEO, her father, handles her criticisms of his decisions by telling her that she sounds too much like her mother? And is it possible for a son to ask advice from his father about his marital problems when he is in competition with his sister for Vice-President in Charge of Marketing? Will the father’s empathy yield to worry about whether his son is capable of handling pressure?

Imagine a father and a son who, as partners in a business venture, are unable to agree on an important contract.Their stalemate might be traceable to what could be interpreted as a clash of roles–a partner who can’t stop being a father when he is trying to convince his associate to change his mind, or a son who can’t stop being a partner with his father during weekend get-togethers. How is a business partner to react when his associate acts like (and is, in fact) his father? If he responds as a son, he undermines his position as co-author of their business fate; if he responds as a colleague, he risks insulting his father and ignoring his filial responsibilities.

Similarly, how is a father to react when his son uses Sunday dinner to demonstrate, in front of the extended family, his brash independence and lack of respect? If, as a father, he admonishes the son’s impertinence in front of everyone, he risks embarrassing him and further entrenching the cocky attitude that has been so predominate at work; if he responds simply as a business partner, the father publicly relinquishes his position as respected patriarch of the family.

The role dilemmas each man faces make clear how difficult, indeed impossible, it is for family business members to follow simplistic, albeit well-intentioned, formulas for improving relations. It would not be uncommon for a consultant confronted with such a scenario to counsel the father and son to each strive to keep their family and business roles clearly distinct.

But such advice reveals two mistaken premises about relational phenomena. First, it assumes that roles are somehow formed within the individual, rather than constituted in relationship to the verbally and nonverbally communicated stance(s) of the other person(s) in the interaction. Second, it assumes that such relational phenomena are indeed separable. Each premise will be discussed below, and the consultative implications of a different understanding will be outlined.