Leading the Next Gen by Example: Constructive Family Relationships

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

I was reading On Wisconsin, the alumni magazine for the University of Wisconsin, when I came across an article highlighting John Gottman, Ph.D., who graduated from Wisconsin in 1972.  I knew of Gottman’s research because I used it often when teaching an undergraduate course at Wisconsin on Interpersonal Communication.

Gottman has devoted his life study to the indicators of what makes a successful marriage. I was in the process of writing an article on preparing teens and young adults for the family enterprise and I thought this is the most important aspect of preparing anyone in a familial relationship, especially those who own/work together. A constructive family relationship is key to continuance of the family firm.

While Gottman is a noted researcher on marriages, I believe his research applies to any familial relationship, especially when preparing the next generation. Parents can teach teens and college kids how to have a constructive, open relationship with family members by treating their own relatives in the business in a healthy manner. Gottman suggests that the four most detrimental behaviors for a marital relationship are criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling and contempt. In fact, his accuracy in predicting divorce (when he sees these behaviors) is at 94%!

Gottman defines criticism differently than a complaint. A complaint focuses on the specific behavior, whereas criticism focuses on the character of a person. When I teach negotiations, I tell the students to separate people from the problem; focus on what the problem is at that time.  Don’t get caught up in the behaviors of the other person because that causes one to lose their most critical leverage piece: their ability to think clearly.

The same is true of familial relationships.  Don’t slay the character of the other family member.  Examples such as “He always needs to be in control” or “She is lazy” is a direct slam at their character. It solves no problems but instead exacerbates the downfall of the relationship. In some of my most conflicted family enterprise work, I see character slams repeatedly happen. The manner of character slamming becomes a habit and is passed down to the next generation.  Children mirror these types of habits and begin to believe that this is how we treat relatives.

Not good preparation for the future!

For more information about next-generation development, read Deb’s article published in The Family Business Advisor: Introducing Teens and Young Adults to the Family Enterprise.