When Rupert Murdoch’s oldest son recently left News Corp., where he was being groomed to succeed his father, it was a reminder of the powerful undercurrents in family businesses.
Unexpected and seemingly irrational behavior often lurks just below the surface of family-owned companies. Even businesses composed of unrelated individuals can exhibit dysfunctional family dynamics. When members of real families are involved in a business relationship, the intensity and depth of decades-old feelings tend to compound the emotional charge.
Despite 30-plus years as a psychotherapist and coach, I’m still somewhat leery of diving into these deep waters. But if family conflicts in the workplace are affecting your clients’ plans and peace of mind, knowing how to approach them is important.
My client heads the human resources department of her father’s business. Her biggest frustration is the behavior of her brother and sister (the sales and customer service managers), who tattle to Dad about her and undermine her authority. How should she handle this? First, ask your client in a gentle and respectful way to identify specifically what her siblings are “tattling” about. What is she doing (coming in late? taking too much time off?) or not doing (missing deadlines?) that gets their goat? If you can get her to ‘fess up about the ammunition they are taking to the father, this may suggest how you can help her address these problem areas.
If she insists that she’s done nothing wrong, you may need to talk to her about her past history with these siblings. Is she the youngest? When they were growing up, was she viewed as the family doofus? Did she lag her sibs academically or did she outdo them, prompting them to want to get even?
Once you identify where the past is intruding on the present, you’ll be able to address the issue with more understanding. She may then be able to take some positive action to deal with the situation.
To begin, she could give her father a self-assessment of her job performance, ask for feedback, and discuss the “snitching” problem with him. Next, she might meet with her brother and sister, perhaps separately. While admitting her imperfections to them, she needs to insist that they bring any complaints directly to her rather than running to Dad. Finally, I would suggest that she get everyone together so that the dynamics are out in the open. Her goal should be to obtain her siblings’ commitment to talk to her when they have problems, and her father’s agreement to enforce this policy.
It sounds to me like this company could profit from regular meetings with a business consultant or coach. You might suggest an expert like therapist Judy Barber ([email protected]), in San Francisco who mediates family disputes over business, estate, and probate issues and buy/sell agreements; or Marty Carter ([email protected]), a communications consultant in Jefferson, Maine, for families, family-owned businesses, and foundations. Being on the outside, a professional is often in a better position to spot dysfunctional dynamics and to suggest ways of combating these habits.
The competition between my client’s father and uncle has been fierce ever since one was picked to head the family business and the other left to start his own company. Although my client has become president of his father’s firm, his dad (who is now chairman) is still making business decisions aimed at outdoing Uncle Phil. Is there a way to resolve this? This is a truly complicated situation. Not only is your client’s father having trouble letting go (a common problem for business owners), but he also seems to be locked into an intense sibling rivalry that may have predated the business competition by decades.
Your client and his father need to talk about Dad’s difficulty in turning over the reins and the continuing competition with Uncle Phil. Your client should address these issues with a strong measure of compassion, not criticism or anger. He and his father need to hash out the role that Dad wants to have in the company, which will allow the son to decide whether or not to accept an incomplete transfer of power.
This is another instance in which an outside business consultant can help. By assessing the roles and responsibilities of the company’s managers and employees, this impartial advisor may be able to suggest ways the father can withdraw from the contest with Uncle Phil in order to transfer his legacy to his son.
With or without a facilitator, it’s important for your client’s father to realize the downside of his insistence on staying at the helm and keeping the bitter rivalry going. By communicating his feelings with open-hearted vulnerability, your client may be able to help his dad understand the cost of this destructive behavior and change his ways.