Healthy family relations are the bedrock of successful family-owned businesses. Few family businesses are able to succeed for long unless the relationships among family members are flourishing. While the intimate relationships among family members provide certain advantages to the business they own together, these relationships also add some complexity to it. Nurturing good family relationships is hard, emotionally demanding, and time consuming work.
As a result of our experiences working with family-owned businesses since 1979, we have identified a cluster of beliefs and behaviors that characterize strong, healthy families. These families share power and leadership so that competence, skills and interests determine the roles family members play in the business. Healthy families pragmatically cope with stresses, differences and problems. Additionally, each family member is able to candidly express his/her own feelings and tolerate the various feelings of other family members.
One attitude that characterizes healthy families is the belief that because reality is subjective, differences between family members are to be respected. Also, there is typically a high degree of trust among members of healthy families and they possess a sense of optimism; they hold the belief that problems can be solved by reasonable people working together. Finally, family members believe and hold a faith that there is meaning and purpose in life. Having commitment to the future creates a long-term perspective that is extremely valuable in dealing with the variety of problems that family businesses face.
A healthy family provides an environment that nurtures the emotional development of its members. Family members exercise their responsibilities toward one another in order to ensure that the welfare of the family and the success of their business are protected. Healthy competition exists in these families, but the inevitable power differences among members merely reflect the unique abilities and talents of each member of the family.
Healthy families are able to express a wide range of feelings with each other. The expression of these feelings and others' tolerance for them contributes to an openness that builds respect among family members. Empathy and caring are the hallmarks of healthy families.
Mixed feelings of ambivalence are a part of these families. They know that everyone has mixed feelings about things that are important - loved ones, the family business, and personal values. As a result, even outbursts of bad feelings among family members during periods of stress are tolerated, understood and respected.
Successful families who work together are committed, persistent problem-solvers, an attribute that often is fueled by their commitment to the future. In healthy families and in healthy businesses, conflict can be productive. These families have a shared vision of what is important to them as well as numerous, different ideas about how to achieve that vision. The free flow of competing ideas, therefore, is crucial for their creative thinking and for their ability to discover good solutions to the problems that exist either within the family or in the business.
The purpose of my enumerating the characteristics of healthy families is not to demonstrate to you the gap that may exist between the way your family operates and the way healthy families operate, but rather to help you think about how you might strengthen the relationships that currently characterize your family. I hope that my enumeration of healthy behaviors and attitudes will create a template for you to use as a first step in conducting a personal audit.
I'd encourage each of you to review your own family relations in order to determine whether or not some changes would be beneficial. Ask yourself how you want your family relationships to be and then ask yourself how they now are. If there is a gap between the two, begin to develop a plan to close that gap. I'd encourage you not only to perform this exercise alone but also to engage the family members in some discussions about your findings so that you can discuss together some of the ways in which you can strengthen your won family's relationships. This process has proved to be extremely useful and productive for other families operating businesses.
Having the resolve to strengthen your relationships is crucial to improving them. Your family relationships will improve only if you want them to. The work that you are willing to do as a result of your resolve will enable you to plan better together for the future, to make important decisions respecting the business, to solve the inevitable disputes that arise before they become irreparable problems, and to better enjoy your life and business together.
It's worth your best efforts.