Sustaining the Benevolent Intent In Family Business

Sustaining the Benevolent UMass
Intent In Family Business

by Tetty Gorfine, M.A., President & Owner
Integral Solutions
(Business and Organizational Consulting)

I believe that many family businesses exist for the very best of reasons. Just to name a few; families want to spend time together, share in the joy of success, invest in the well being of those they love, and parents wish to pass along a good and secure life. Children want to carry on the family name and desire to perpetuate the growth of the family business.

There is no doubt that these and many other benevolent reasons create and sustain the family business. There are of course situations where family members would benefit by not working with relatives which is an entire subject onto itself. However, in situations where working together serves the best interest of family members it can be confusing when good and well intended people find themselves, at times, amidst conflict and opposition with those they love. How, then, can family members recreate their best intention to support and love each other in daily business and in times of transition?

Often the dilemma lies in the age old difficulties that exist between parents and children. Between every generation there exists an inherent tension. The parent feels: “I only want the best for my child. He/she will not listen to my wisdom and experience. I just can’t get through.” The child thinks: “My parent does not listen to me. Everything must be done her/his way. Why aren’t I valued?”

These polarized positions only deepen as the parent watches the child steer directly into disaster; one that could have been diverted if only the child had listened. But for the child, resentment builds as the parent once again meddles in their affairs, insists on the superiority of the parental way.

Later in business, parents may feel that the adult child has a lot to learn and should be able to follow the elder’s example. The adult child, fresh with their own ideas wants only to spread their own wings.

As the years pass, the family business must undergo a transition as leadership shifts from the older generation to the younger one. The quality of the transition will often directly mirror the earlier issues that have endured since earlier times. The older generation may resist any “take over” by the younger one, whereas the children may exert pressures to get the parent out so they many finally, for once and for all, be freed from all parental controls. Children may also be reticent to take more and more responsibility if they feel they are hurting, angering or playing a part in raising the reality of their parent’s aging. Many other scenario’s are also possible.

Knowingly, and unknowingly, both parties may recruit other family members and employees to join and pledge allegiance to their camp. Parents and children can work against one another in many ways without intending to. A business at this stage will find itself split and injured.

Too often, when conflicts take root, people become entrenched in their respective positions and a stalemate can result. The individuals involved may, or may not, even be talking about the tensions that are present. Both sides loose sight of common goals, and people can even forget why it is they work together.

It is beneficial for all family members to know that the conflicts they experience are the conflicts of generations. It is important that all of the people involved come to realize several things. The greatest problems exist not in the particulars of what each individual thinks about the “other,” but in the fact that so often, between generations, people neither feel understood nor respected.

The problem, in other words, is not as much about who’s way is right. It is about the age old struggle between parents and adult children and the difficulty in coming to see one another as unique and valid in their beliefs and ideas. This is not to say that there are not many other problems that arise between family members such as differences in vision for the company or management styles.

But understanding that in great part what fuels the intensity behind the conflicts is the generational enigma. Realizing this, and then stepping out of the vicious cycle of who’s way is right, can help people to take the struggles less personally and move towards the love and care that makes family members want to work together in the first place.

Nearly all relationships between parents and children are tough. As adults, both generations in business together benefit from realizing this. Adult children need to see that a parent’s desire is to teach a method proven to them. The parent is trying to protect what they have already built. And yet, youth brings with it an energy bursting with new ideas and creativity. Life is change. Yesterday’s proven ways will become stagnant tomorrow. Youth must bring in the new. Parents do well in recognizing this.

As both generations come to understand the true nature of their challenges, they can then come to respect what the other has to offer. Then sustaining benevolent intent becomes possible. Both parent and child can then, become partners and co-parents, together, of their family business.

Reprinted with permission of the UMass Family Business Center, online at www.umass.edu/fambiz.