Playing With Contextual Complexity: RelationalConsultation With Family Businesses (Part II)

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

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

Mistaken Premise 1: Roles Exist With Individuals

Roles can be considered shorthand descriptions of interactions, for they define positions taken in complementary relationships. A child needs a parent to be a child; to be a boss one needs employees. To help in not losing such a relational understanding of clients’ roles, a consultant would do well to attend primarily to the interactions to which roles refer, to the patterns of behavior that characterize the family context, the patterns that exemplify the business context, and the patterns that emerge as a function of the family-business interface.

Such an orientation brings forth a number of interesting context-sensitive ideas to explore. In reference to the father/son relationship described above, one might ask some of the following questions:Are there aspects of the men’s familial tie that are important to preserve in their business discussions? Is the son trying too hard not to be his father’s son, thereby impelling dad to “put him in his place?” Where do they have their business meetings? Are the two of them relating at work as they did when the son was growing up? If so, is it helpful? If not, why not? Who pays for lunch? What do they call each other at work?

What would happen if the two men purposefully set out to discuss the contract issue twice over, once on the same long walk in the botanical gardens they used to take together when the son was a youngster, and again in the boardroom, complete with white shirts and first names? With such an orientation to consultation, one searches for ways in which the contextual complexity of family business relationships can serve as a resource for, rather than an impediment to, a resolution of their stalemate.

Different contexts, such as a family and a business, can be distinguished in terms of the set of relational rules or expectations of which they are comprised. Contextual rules can be understood as redundant patterns of interaction between individuals, as “agreements” or “formulas” which “prescribe and limit…individuals’ behaviors over a wide variety of content areas, organizing their interaction into a reasonably stable system” (Jackson, 1965, p. 9). Certain interactions are expected; certain interactions are not expected. Rules and expectations change when contexts change, even if the individuals involved are the same in each case.

The confusions and misunderstandings usually described as accompanying role overlap can thus be explained in terms of what happens when expectations don’t change from one context to the next. Consider, for illustration, the case of a husband and wife whose marriage and joint business are in jeopardy.

Some years before, when their two children were young, the wife had begun selling diet and beauty products out of their home. Her husband, who had not wanted her working at all, put up with “this little hobby of hers” because it “wasn’t a real job” and he could “keep tabs on her.” But the wife was effective in sales and a hard worker; before too long she had other women working for her and, over time, she established a significant distribution network for the products. To her husband’s chagrin, she began making more money than he. He took a deep breath, quit his job, and joined his wife in her growing enterprise.

The marriage had been organized patriarchically–the husband had the final word on most issues; however, the business was started and developed by the wife, and although she spoke of her husband as a partner, it was clear that he was at best an equal on her terms, despite his best efforts to have it otherwise. Needless to say, there was thus much contextual confusion where family and business overlapped, as many of the implicit rules and expectations–such as how decisions were to be made and who was to make them–in each context contradicted those in the other. The couple fought incessantly over issues, such as the selling of their house, that had implications for both the family and business.

Again, a consultant who misconstrues roles as individually defined characteristics would probably suggest that the husband and wife keep their family and business roles clear and distinct. This would be an excellent suggestion if it were possible to do; however, as with all good advice, it is much easier said than done. In order to understand why this is the case, it will be helpful to move to a discussion of the second mistaken premise, mentioned above.

Mistaken Premise 2: Relational Phenomena areSeparable

If, as Bateson proposes, the informational world of perception and language we inhabit is relationally structured, then any attempted marking of a distinction–asserting and striving to ensure, for instance, that one’s “father role” does not contaminate one’s “boss role”–is itself a relational act. That is, separations connect.

A good example of such relational understanding can be found in Bowen’s (1985) insight that forcibly and angrily cutting off contact with one’s parents and siblings is not an effective means of emotionally divorcing from them. The attempted separation forges a connection, even across physical distance: “The person who runs away from home is as emotionally attached as the one who says at home…He runs away kidding himself that he is achieving ‘independence'” (p. 535). Similarly, people’s most concerted attempts to eradicate some despised aspect of themselves–such as a smoking or drinking habit, unwanted thoughts or dreams, eating too much, panic attacks, and so on–can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of tying them that much tighter to that from which they wish to separate (Flemons, 1991).

The point is that in the realm of human communication–where issues of selfhood, of marriage, and of social and business relationships are necessarily managed–there is no such thing as pure separation. Any boundary that successfully distinguishes “A” from “B” simultaneously ensures that each is defined in relation to the other.

Thus, to bring the discussion back to the topic at hand, all anxious attempts to sever family and business roles will necessarily fail to do so. This can cause problems, but it can also suggest solutions. The challenge for consultants becomes not how to get clients to separate this role from that, but how to help them discover and invent the ways in which the relationship between the contexts they participate in can be both separated and connected in interesting and creative ways.

If, for example, the inescapable association and dissociation of contexts is applied to the marriage/business difficulties discussed above, several ideas emerge for establishing a helpful consultativeorientation. The couple may think of their marriage as one in which the husband is the head, but their relationship in the business challenges that easy assumption. If he has already exhibited the strengthand flexibility necessary to appreciate his wife’s ability to create a business opportunity for both of them, in what other areas of their marriage has he discovered and shown similar qualities?

How can he use his patriarchic proclivities to help him demand that his wife develop her independent spirit in both the business and the family? And how can the wife independently find ways to access her husband’s experience and ideas? How can they keep family and business separate in ways that enhance their interdependence? And so on.

Each question asked above can help move the consultant and family in the direction of discovering resources, resources that can be mined from either family or business context and applied as is or in some transformed fashion to the same or the other context. The following case example illustrates this approach.

Consulting With a Family Business

A woman in her late forties asked for advice in handling problems with her seventy-year-old mother over a jointly-run dry cleaning business. The daughter, who wanted to discuss the situation without her mother present, complained that her mother did not give her enough responsibility, treated her like a child, and left their job descriptions undefined.

When the consultant explored positive interactions between mother and daughter outside of the business, the daughter identified several things. The most striking of these was their shared belief that women must put themselves and family first. The consultant then asked questions such as the following to determine how this could be used as a resource in the business.

How much do you and your mother agree on the need for a woman to put herself and her family first? How does that translate into your working relationship? How flexible is your working interaction with your mother regarding personal time for sick leave, vacation time, and child care? When does this flexibility and understanding of a mother-daughter relationship work for you in the business?

These questions helped the woman connect the positive interactions of flexibility inside and outside the business. By doing so, she moved toward realizing that undefined or flexible job responsibilities (one of her original complaints) allowed her the freedom of missing work for family and personal time. Once home and work could be connected in a way such that one didn’t simply undermine the other, the daughter was able to begin building a more positive working relationship with her mother.

This example illustrates some of the benefits of thinking relationally, of accounting for the necessary connections between family and business and using them to help alter stuck interactions. Such a perspective allows for great flexibility of response to the various conundrums faced by family business clients.

A relational approach to consultation can be described best, perhaps, by offering some of the questions that can be used to organize the consultant’s work with his or her clients. These are not questions that would be asked directly of the clients, but rather of oneself, to shape the direction and nature of the consulting process:

  • What are the rules of interaction in the family?  
  • What are the rules of interaction in the business?  
  • In what ways are family and business kept separate? How helpful are these separations? In what ways do attempted separations create unintended connections? For example, are brother’s attempts to “just be the boss” at work making his sister all the more aware that he is “just her little brother?” Who monitors and maintains the boundaries (between family and business)?  
  • In what new ways can the two contexts be separated? (A common tact taken is for family members to call each other by their given names at work: has this or other similar ideas been tried)?  
  • In what ways are family and business kept connected? How helpful are these connections? In what ways do attempted connections create unintended separations? For instance, is husband pushing his wife away when he talks shop on the weekends? Who stirs family issues into the business, and vice versa?  
  • In what ways should difficulties at work beunderstood as having nothing to do with family issues, and vice versa? Despite this, can the necessary connections between the two contexts be used as a resource to help resolve a difficulty in one or the other? That is, in what ways can successful interactions at work be utilized at home, and vice versa?

Members of family businesses are rather like any specialized group of individuals–they tend to trust those who have had similar experience. For those of us who belong to family business enterprises, credibility is more easily won; for those of us who do not come with that particular pass-key in hand, we would do well to follow Borwick’s (1986) advice, to acquaint ourselves with “the territory of the business world” (p. 439), whether through research, or training and education opportunities. This, coupled with a consultation map such as the one outlined here, canprovide a grounded, flexible orientation to a most fascinating and complex world of relationships.