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FEBRUARY 18, 2000

When Family Conflicts Come to the Office

Excerpt from Keep the Family Baggage out of the Family Business


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Disappointments occur in any family as children grow up, and the family system's continued pressure on them is a continual reminder of these events. Some wounds will never heal, regardless of how much time elapses, while others may heal, provided that sufficient distance is achieved and maintained.

That distance is hard to achieve in a family business. As a result, conflicts may erupt in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times. Two family members will have a brief interaction on an innocuous subject, and suddenly -- wham! It's all-out war. The critical thing to realize is that the conflict has nothing to do with the topic being discussed. The interaction has triggered memories or emotions buried deep in one person's subconscious.

How often does this happen in family businesses? Probably a lot more than people realize. Anytime there's a pattern of people snapping at one another for no apparent reason, it's a good bet that this syndrome is present. If a hurt person is working in a family business, the odds are that he or she never had time to get proper distance. Continuing to work in the business prevents the wounds from healing.

Any time family members find themselves exploding at one another unexpectedly, they need to learn new behaviors. They need to learn to probe, step back, and look beyond what's happening whenever strong conflicts arise. Realizing that they're overreacting in a manner inconsistent with the situation will help them learn to stop chasing ghosts.

If other family members are often baffled by such behavior, imagine the impact on nonfamily employees. If the incidents are nasty enough, both family and nonfamily may do things to prevent recurrences that aren't good for business. When people are trying to avoid conflicts, they often create other problems. I was in one meeting where family members thought they were fighting about the purchase of machinery. They weren't. But the fight was intense, and they ended up making a poor business decision just to end the fight. Then, fearing a repeat of the earlier argument, they refused to discuss future equipment purchases, even though what they were fighting about had nothing to do with purchasing machinery.

Another behavior pathology that afflicts entrepreneurs and their families is having unreasonable expectations for their children. The children's achievements are considered to be a direct reflection of the parents' own greatness. Since these children must be perfect, the slightest error is harshly punished or criticized. These errors unwittingly show that the parents themselves aren't perfect. As the children enter the business, their parents expect them to automatically know everything there is to know about the business, even though it often took the parents several decades to build it (learning in the process.) There was plenty the parents didn't know. They probably learned via trial and error. But this will not be tolerated of their children.

Outside a family business situation, such children may have the opportunity to flee their family. They can go work somewhere else, move to another town, possibly join the Witness Protection Program. But there's no place to flee from these parents in a family business. What would have been an unfortunate childhood with the possibility to escape further damage becomes a never-ending cycle.

The effect is to produce people who are plagued by nagging doubts about their abilities. They inevitably resent their parents for doing what they did. As a result, they may hate the family business and what they do there.

Another entrepreneurial-parent syndrome comes from those who blindly think their kids are perfect and continually tell them how great they are. If the kids never achieve sufficient distance and get a reality check, there will be trouble. Over time, they will begin to believe these untruths. They're not used to hearing anything unpleasant about themselves, so even the slightest negative feedback has a traumatic effect. They want to protect their egos at all cost. These people have a definite impact on the family business, and it's generally not positive. Problems will never be their fault. They'll take credit for everything that goes right and blame others for all setbacks. Working for the family business gives them the power to do this.

These spoiled kids grow up to be particularly effective at destroying morale. At best, they'll be very demanding and unappreciative of the contributions other people make, while expecting them to be subservient. At worst, they'll be abusive towards others in the business.

Quentin J. Fleming is a management consultant with more than a decade of experience in the field, advising a variety of clients from small entrepreneurial ventures to Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Los Angeles.

Reprinted and excerpted with permission from Keep the Family Baggage Out of the Family Business By Quentin J. Fleming, Copyright 2000, Quentin Fleming Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster ( All rights reserved. Available at the McGraw-Hill Bookstore and online bookstores


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