Good communication and trust strengthen family and business


By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Many business owners are puzzled when their attorney or CPA suggests that they should meet with me before proceeding with signing a contract or structuring a reorganization or resolving a partnership disagreement. What’s a psychologist have to do with business anyway? ” I don’t need a shrink,” they say.

Yes, I get plenty of puzzled looks when I explain that I am a Psychologist and a Family/Business Consultant. But this makes a lot of sense when you take a look at a few basic facts. For example, half of American businesses are family owned and operated (and even more in the Northwest). Secondly, many of these businesses are run and staffed by family members who are not necessarily formally trained or educated for their specific job. They work for the business because they are trusted family members dedicated to the success of the family enterprise. Third, many of these businesses have been around two or three or four generations, which means that the children are growing up identifying themselves with the family business. What this means for many family firms is that the business is as much a part of the family and each family member as the family and each family member is a part of the business.

Recognizing that family/businesses are really families with a business identity, as a psychologist I am able to get beneath the surface of some business problems to identify the emotional snags that are hanging up a business decision. There is nothing more frustrating nor expensive than taking weeks and months to develop a new business strategy, only to have it sit there going nowhere because there is a family dispute. When Mom and Dad don’t agree, or when Granpa doesn’t approve of his successor, or when Daughter-in-law is at odds with Mother-in-law, or Son has a drug addiction problem, do you really think these things have no affect on the business? Yes many businesses continue to thrive for a while with serious problems like an alcoholic CEO, but what is the legacy for the next generation?

I believe it is very important to families in business to have the benefit of a psychologist’s expertise when developing goals and resolving problems in their family enterprise. For example, I recently learned of an interesting study conducted in Oregon with troubled teens. The program results provide a valuable lesson for families in business too.

The program determined what mode of intervention works best in turning teens away from early school dropout and delinquency. The researchers compared several treatment groups. One group of teens attended a teen support group facilitated by a counselor. Another group of teens attended a teen support group, and also attended family therapy with their parents. Another group attended only family therapy. And a fourth group of teens only benefited by their parents attending a parent training class.

Over a five-year period, which group do you think made the most progress toward reducing delinquency and high school dropout among troubled teens? Interestingly the groups that were most successful were the parent training only and the family therapy group without a teen support group. When teens are allowed to socialize with other troubled teens, they just teach each other bad lessons. But when parents learn how to successfully parent and when teens work with their parents to resolve their problems, the whole family benefits.

There are two lessons here for families in business. First, whenever you are planning a new goal or you are stuck accomplishing a goal, the whole family needs to be involved in the solution. Secondly, the solution to any problem in any family, whether it be a business family or not, depends upon the parents or leadership. When the parents or leadership are strong and well educated about what works in a healthy family system, problems get addressed and solved sooner.

The teens in the above study were not elevated to the position of leadership in their families because they were part of solution discussions. But they were included in the discussions and learned problem-solving skills with their parents. A similar system works beautifully in successful family firms. Such firms have regular family business retreats where discussions ensue among stockholders and stakeholders alike. Open communication is an important key. But even more important is that open communication makes all family members feel like important contributors to the welfare of the family enterprise.

Many family firms want to have open communication. They want to resolve longstanding family/business disputes. They don’t like walking on eggshells around certain family members or avoiding sensitive subjects. So why don’t they get on with it? Why do their attorneys, CPAs and other business advisors have files filled with incomplete projects? Because in spite of good intentions, many of these family firms do not have the skills to address and resolve these problems. They need support and guidance by a psychologist who is trained in resolving problems within a family business system. They need education to learn these skills.

Not everyone is a natural born communicator. Not everyone knows how to “diagnose” family system problems. Not everyone has the courage to confront their family or a family member when love and dollars are at stake. It is no shame to be uneducated about these things. However it is a shame to let your embarrassment over your lack of education get in the way of seeking professional help. Remember a family business is first and foremost a family. Just as in the study of the troubled teens, if you strengthen the family, the individuals and the business will thrive.