Powering a positive family business unit

Siblings sometimes have to shed the heavy baggage of past rivalries and hurt to find an enterprising way forward based on mutual respect

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 4:17am

"Why am I working 60-plus hours a week to grow this business while my siblings share equally in the dividends but don't have the responsibilities I have?"

This is a question that Johnston Wang, chairman and CEO of his family's manufacturing firm, has asked himself many times.

Benedict and Mabel, Johnston's two younger siblings, are also frustrated, saying they are not treated as adults or equal partners.

They respect that Johnston took charge when their father died 12 years ago but feel he makes all the big decisions without consulting them and then complains they don't contribute.

Benedict is even more direct: "I don't see why my brother, who doesn't have the education that I have and has never run one of our operating companies, should be totally in control of the family business. We are all equal 33 per cent shareholders."

Over the past five years Benedict has built the smallest division into a real profit-maker, and he thinks he could make a similar contribution to the entire group if his brother would allow him to take more responsibility. But when he proposed taking charge of the family's largest factory Johnston quickly rebuked him.

The discussion ended with Benedict storming out of their meeting exclaiming: "You are always so negative about my ideas. You know my plan for improving the plant meets our goals but you always want to be in charge."

There are many issues facing the Wang family around ownership and control, but their priority must be learning to treat each other as adults and with respect. Most business families operate on a culture of critique in which people routinely interrupt, challenge, criticise, correct, disagree, and argue. This style may be acceptable in some professional settings, but families are also about caring and connecting.

Positive psychology offers a new paradigm. It uses techniques like positive affirmation - that is, acknowledging the positive traits and behaviour in others - to strengthen interpersonal relationships, fostering effectiveness and happiness.

Individuals who "affirm" others have an advantage: their behaviour reboots their own brains so that they consciously think about the positive attributes they see in others.

Negative thoughts surface hundreds of times a day, especially in family businesses, where past hurts or rivalries are played out daily in the boardroom or on the factory floor. The younger brother resents his older brother rejecting his ideas and after a while his reaction is, as expected, "enough is enough".

He protects himself by either attacking or avoiding his brother and their relationship becomes distant and strained. These strained relationships have two negative consequences: first, there is a loss of trust and support at work; and second, the family members' emotional tie erodes.

The simple answer is to change the other person's behaviour. But that won't happen unless we first change our own. If the younger brother reflects on the relationship he might find that his brother's comments are meant to be constructive but are badly delivered.

He might also see that at times his plans do need to be improved and his brother's criticism is valid. It is possible, too, that the older brother is critical as a defence mechanism against his own feelings of insecurity.

How does the younger brother use this information to improve the relationship?

One way is to identify positive examples of his brother's critical thinking to expand his perception of his sibling. It also allows his brother to lower his defences and open the door for discussion on how to make critical thinking a more constructive part of their relationship.

Using positive affirmation is a powerful leadership tool in family and/or business life. The goal is to help others recognise that you understand and appreciate their positive behaviour. Here are a few guidelines.

Reflect on all your important relationships. Most family communications are spontaneous and filled with emotion. Most families have had a lifetime of interacting without thinking about positive regard, so doing something new takes reflection, planning, and maybe even a little mental rehearsal.

Answer a simple question: "What would be lost if my brother was not working with me?" Write down your thoughts - keeping them brief - and make these into positive affirmations.

Understand that communication is when one person affects another. It includes all human behaviour. So plan your affirmation in three ways: first, use the person's name to make the communication personal; second, use your eyes to show you care; and last, use your words carefully.

Use the "48-hour rule": keep your affirmations in the present to give them more impact.

Accept emotions as another form of thinking and communication. The first time you share a positive affirmation with a family member, they may not know how to react or may express discomfort. Don't be put off - make your affirmation and then say nothing more.

Be authentic. While positive affirmations are valuable, it is also important to base them on sincere feelings.

Have fun. Enjoy giving positive affirmations to others, especially your spouse and children - and make a point of using humour. We are all concerned about improving our work relationships but a much greater part of our happiness comes from our families and how we feel at home.

The truth is that business families are particularly guilty of failing to acknowledge the contributions or accomplishments of other family members. So positive attributions represent a particularly valuable tool for them.

It is the old family therapy story all over again where the client says: "Of course my family knows I love them." But do they? Really?

Professor Randel Carlock is the Berghmans Lhoist Chaired Professor in Entrepreneurial Leadership at INSEAD