Connecting and Separating Family and Business (Part I)

Connecting and Separating
Family and Business (Part I)

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

When members of a family business experience difficulties, they may hire a consultant to make recommendations for change. The consultant’s suggestions will, of course, reflect the assumptions he or she makes about the sorts of unique challenges and conundrums faced by the clients,and the way in which such difficulties can be most effectively addressed.

A variety of theoretical overlays have been proposed for making sense of the rich complexities faced by members in family businesses and for how to solve the problems that can arise. Each orientation focuses the consultant’s attention in a particular direction, drawing distinctions which bring into existence particular abstractions–such as “role-sets”or “triangulation”–and render invisible (out of mind) that for which there is no name. What can be seen in, and understood about a situation determines the scope and the nature of the consultant’s suggestions.

This paper proposes some conceptual tools for helping consultants orient to family business situations and the process of consultation. The tools will be developed from an exploration of the interconnected ideas of relationship and context. This is not to say that extant models do not address similar issues; however, it may be useful to draw some different distinctions and see if new possibilities for consultation can be generated as a result. The discussion will begin with an examination of the nature of relationship and then proceed to unpack the concept of context; the developed notions will be applied at each step to the world of family business.


A family business can be viewed as a kind of contextual hybrid, a unique combination of two sets of rules and expectations. A theorist could highlight the duality of the combination, focusing on the inherent differences between family and business relationships; however, it is also possible to underscore the unity of the combination, to view a family business as a complete entity with an integrated structure and organization (Kantor, 1977, 1991; Kepner, 1983; Hollander & Elman,1988; Whiteside & Brown, 1991).

The choice between viewing a family business dualistically (i.e., as a “discrete-family-system-interfacing-with-a-discrete-business-system”) and holistically (i.e., as a “family business”) depends on the way in which the relationship between family and business is understood. This may be more clearly seen if we represent the relationship in terms of the distinction “family/business.” It is then possible to recognize that the choice of orientation turns on the way in which the boundary (i.e., the slash of the distinction) between family and business is handled.

To better grasp this point, it may be helpful for us to move, for a moment,to a more general discussion about what relationships such as distinctions do. Once this is done, we can return to the issue of how theorist and consultant alike can play with the “family-and-business” and “family business” relationships of family businesses.

Connecting and Separating

A conceptual boundary–such as the slash between family and business in the distinction family/business–creates a relationship that simultaneously accomplishes two complementary functions. It distinguishes between “this” and “that” (e.g., “family” and “business”) and in so doing separates one “something” from another “something.” For example,”foreground/background” isolates foreground from background, “good/bad”severs good and bad, and “complex/simple” differentiates complex and simple.

But in the marking of the boundary, each of the terms is defined in relation to the other: They are not isolated entities; the boundary defines them as relata. That is, the boundary serves not only as a separation between two “somethings,” it also, through the juxtaposition of the two sides, establishes a connection between them (Flemons, 1991). The slash in the distinction family/business is a conceptual boundary that establishes the distinctiveness of family and business and links them irrevocably.

This dual aspect of boundaries is not abstract philosophy–it is an essential part of our everyday lives. Distinctions constitute the relational “stuff” of thought; they form the basis of our conceptual ability to experience the world (Bateson, 1972; Flemons, 1991; Zerubavel, 1991).

For example, people simultaneously define their uniqueness (separation) in relation (connection) to others and their bond(connection) in terms of their differences (separation). The distinction self/other is experienced in such relational terms as: “I am more outgoing than he”; “I am a better manager than she”; “I organize more effectively than he”; “I understand less than she”; etc. People are relationships.

Such an understanding can help us appreciate, for instance, how impossible it is for people in significant relationships to ever fully separate from each other, particularly through such practices as divorce. The very attempts to make an important relationship not matter will often have the effect of highlighting it, of making it matter more. It is paradoxically the case that the effort to separate from someone serves to forge a connection (Flemons, 1991): The more a son, for instance, strives to escape from his upbringing, not to repeat his father’s mistakes, the more his actions are defined in relation to what his father did or did not do and the more he fails to escape.

The implication of such an understanding for both theorist and consultant bears most directly on the adoption of an orientation to family businesses: Should one assume a dualistic or holistic perspective? The idea of relationship developed above suggests that neither orientation is more or less correct, more or less ontologically true. There is no objective border dividing family and business in two, no real outline encircling them as one.

Each orientation will be limited to the extent that it forgets to acknowledge that it is highlighting only one of the functions of the distinction family/business. The boundary is conceptual; it creates a distinction that simultaneously separates and connects the relata on each side of the slash.

Thus, instead of inquiring as to which perspective is correct, theorists and consultants can ask the following sorts of questions: “If I conceive of the family and business as two distinct contexts, what will this allow me to see and understand about the relationship between them that otherwise would not be possible?” And likewise, “If I take the two to be one, to be an organized whole, what will this allow me to create and invent?” And finally, “What can I discover if I look at family businesses stereoscopically, that is, if I bring together both the ‘family and business’ and the ‘family business’ templates?” Thus, the emphasis is placed entirely on what a particular handling of the family/business (orany other) distinction affords in possibilities.

Consider the case of a brother and sister who grew up in a family where there was an expectation that siblings help each other if and when they can. When the brother turned sixteen and asked his older sister for a loan to buy a motorbike, he could be relatively certain that she would procure the necessary funds; and later, when the sister was going through a painful divorce, she could count on her brother to help her move and to lend her the money for the security deposit on her new apartment.

However, if these siblings were then to start a business together, and if there was a business rule that partners do not financially oblige each other, then there would be much potential difficulty if the brother needed help on the down payment for a house. The rules of the family and their history of helping each other would almost demand that his sister give him a loan; however, the rules of the business would preclude it.

The simultaneous overlay of two such divergent contexts would make either course of action wrong. The sister/partner must both help and not help, and can neither help nor not help. In such a situation, both family and work relationships could well suffer. Trust, which is really just a name for the certainty of one’s expectations in important relationships, can easily be violated amidst such contextual complexity.

A standard response of a consultant in such a situation would be to encourage the brother and sister to keep family and business clear and distinct. However, as explained above, it is impossible to draw boundaries that only differentiate; attempts to separate the two contexts can have the effect of connecting them ever more intimately.

Sister and brother, diligently trying to keep family and work from seeping into each other, might well be frustrated and disappointed when their conversation son the weekend become stilted and halting (as they strive not to mention business issues), and their conferences at work become either so sterile that their synergy is lost, or even more familially tinged than before(with each ultra-aware of the presence of a “too big-sisterly” tone of voice, or a “too little-brotherly” entreaty), despite–in fact, because of–their best efforts.

It would thus become important for a consultant to utilize the inherent connectedness of separated relationships in creative ways.Several ideas emerge. The siblings/partners could agree to money lending as siblings and lending refusal as partners, or they could negotiate new rules of money lending as a brother and sister who work together.Sister/partner could, for instance, loan money from the business to brother/partner, but charge interest, something never practiced in their family relationship. Whatever rules evolve, these siblings can find ways of recombining elements in either or both of their family and business contexts to evolve new sets of rules and expectations.

With these ideas in place, we can now proceed to examine the notion of context from a relational perspective.


Context has most commonly been conceived of as a kind of container–or as Bateson (1972) and Goffman (1974) would say, a frame–which in some sense determines the meaning of communicated messages within it. The frame itself can be communicated para-linguistically and/or non-verbally (e.g., through tone of voice, facial expression, body posture, and so on)as a meta message, a message which classifies messages.

For example, the statement, “You’re fired,” takes on a very different significance for an employee, depending on whether his boss utters it after having been insulted in front of important clients, or after having been beaten in a friendly game of squash. The phrase (“You’re fired”)simply doesn’t make sense outside of the frame within which it is uttered.

It will either be classified by a meta message that says, in effect, “Take the seriousness of this message about the difference in our hierarchical positions seriously” (i.e., you really are fired for having humiliated me), or (in the case of the friendly competition of the squash game) “Take the seriousness of this message about the difference in our hierarchical positions jokingly.” Without context there is no meaning(Bateson, 1979).

Even with the semantic fluidity engendered by the contextual determination of meaning, communication would be a decidedly simple affair if the relationship between message and context were as simple as that between a picture and its frame. If a particular message could always be “correctly” framed within its “proper” context, its meaning could always be appropriately specified and understood.

This, of course,is not possible–for a number of reasons. First, different participants in an exchange may contextualize a message differently. The boss who teases her employee when he beats her at squash may in fact scare him into believing that he actually has been fired; a message is only teasing when it is framed as such by the recipient.

Second, contexts are often impossible to clearly define; indeed, teasing is itself such an instance. Much of the double-edged delight in teasing resides in contextual ambiguity: The recipient is often left in limbo as to whether the other person’s dead-pan is to be interpreted as a serious or humorous offering.

Such ambiguity can arise as a function of the fact that contexts themselves are embedded within contexts. Another way of stating this third point about the complexity of the relationship between message and context would be to note that just as messages are classified by meta messages, so too meta messages can be classified by meta-meta messages,and so on. Ambiguity, confusion, and paradox can arise any time a message at one level (i.e., a message, meta message, meta-meta message, etc.) is contradicted or undermined by a context which embeds it.

Thus, the boss’s meta message that her employee should take seriously her seriousness about firing him may be thrown into question (for the employee) if the exchange happens on the morning of April 1st and if the boss had arranged with him the night before to make a scene so she could play a practical joke on their clients.

The fourth, and most important, reason that the specification of context is not a simple affair has to do with the reflexive relationship between context and messages. Unfortunately, Bateson’s frame metaphor obscures the fact that context is not transcendentally separate from that which it contextualizes. A context of “insult” or of “teasing” or of anything else does not exist independently of the messages to which it is”meta”; it does not float above them; rather, it resides in the relation between the exchange of messages, it is immanent.

Contexts, like melodies, are woven of the parts they compose. The”meaning” of each individual note in a melody is a function of how it fits within the shape of the whole. The melody (context) gives it meaning. However, the melody is nothing but the combination of such notes; thus, each note partly shapes the melody that in turn shapes it. The same is true of each exchange in an unfolding conversation: Every statement in a dialogue contributes to the forming of a context that reflexively determines how the statement itself is to be understood.

More generally, a relationship between two or more people can be viewed as an ongoing, interactive process of constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing contexts and contexts of contexts. Each act of the participants (including attempts at non-participation) becomes woven into the multi-layered interplay of communicated meaning that continually defines, questions, and redefines the limits of what is possible and/or acceptable between them.