Almost everyone remembers a time in childhood when they felt left out—the party they weren’t invited to, the snub by someone who was supposed to be a friend, the time they weren’t rewarded for a job well done, especially when others were being recognized. Even as you read these words you might still feel the sting of something that made you feel shunned or ostracized a long time ago. Now, thanks to neuroscience, we know why this pain was so severe and why you still remember.
Social neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles are studying what goes on in the brain to help leaders understand how their actions affect their followers. These researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) along with other sophisticated equipment, and the results have important implications for leaders of family businesses. One of the most pertinent studies for family business owners was conducted by Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscience researcher at UCLA, who studied what happens in the brain when people feel rejected. Her research indicates that when we feel excluded our brains have the same reaction they would to physical pain.
Dr. David Rock, the president of the Neuro Leadership Institute, writes Eisenbergers’ research illustrates “people who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work . . . experience it as a neural impulse as powerful and painful as a blow to the head.” Rock claims many studies show the brain responds to social needs the same way as it does for survival.
Family leaders must be aware of the unintended consequences of accidentally excluding a family member. Perhaps you thought Aunt Alice was drastically overreacting because she didn’t receive the information she thought she should have been given. When her face turned beet red and she began screaming at you just before she angrily stormed out of the room, she wasn’t being overly sensitive. Her brain was telling her you had just hit her over the head with a baseball bat, and she was responding accordingly!
Family leaders who understand how strong the brain’s reaction is to being excluded, betrayed, or unrecognized can be more sensitive. There are steps they can take such as:
Making certain all family members are invited to family meetings and gatherings;
Seeing that pertinent financial information is accessible to everyone;
Establishing family policies so all family owners are given the same opportunities in the business;
Creating a Code of Conduct giving all family owners the chance to talk about how they expect to be treated and what is important to them;
Recognizing the hard work of family leaders as well as business leaders; and
Showing appreciation to family members and employees.
If the holidays weren’t enough to stir up trouble for family businesses here in the US, for the past couple weeks we have been in the midst of college football rivalries to add some fun conflict to the family business. Yes, I did say fun conflict, and yes, there is such a thing, and sports can deliver the goods. All over the country stretching from Southern California with the cross-town rivalries of USC and UCLA, to the South with Alabama and Auburn, to the Northeast with Harvard and Yale and culminating this weekend with Army vs. Navy in Philadelphia, it is rivalry season where brother roots against brother and family alliances and differences are celebrated!
Last Saturday here in Oregon the 114th Civil War game pitting the University of Oregon Ducks vs. The Oregon State University Beavers was played in Corvallis. The “number 1” Oregon Ducks went on to defeat the Beavers by a score of 37 − 20. Now the Ducks will play in the BCS championship game against Auburn on January 10th 2011 for the often-disputed title of college football champions. While the BCS debate is a whole other discussion for blogs and sports radio elsewhere, for family businesses, sports rivalries can be a nice distraction and an enjoyable way to deal with some healthy conflict. Here in Oregon, it was fun to watch families divided in their loyalties as a husband wore green and yellow (colors of the Ducks) and his wife wore black and orange (Beavers) and their sons and daughters divided in Oregon and Oregon State colors. Throughout the stadium the pattern repeated itself as families were divided in their allegiances, and some even went so far as to display the ultimate hybrid — the platypus — melding the Duck and Beaver fan who has ties to both schools.
Many family businesses in the weeks leading up to the Civil War used the event with their employees as a way to bring hilarity to the work place as various bets and challenges were issued based on their respective allegiances to either the Ducks or the Beavers. I can tell you on Monday morning there were plenty of Beaver family business owners driving to work wearing Duck gear, or having their car adorned with Duck colors or even worse dressed as the Duck mascot. For many around the state of Oregon yesterday was a very long day of humiliation and insults, but there is always next year – and it was all in good fun.
Regardless of the sport it is interesting to see how in some families the long tradition of supporting one team continues while in others the next generation breaks the tradition and roots for the biggest rival – just to shake things up a bit. Certainly many families use game day outings as a way to bond and socialize together for fun. With a few of my clients we have used their strong connections with a certain sports team as a motivator to not violate the ‘Code of Conduct’ or they will be required to make a contribution to their rivals’ athletic fund. We have had a great deal of fun with it, and I can tell you the shame of writing that check is a powerful motivator! A good question to ponder is: ‘How does your family use sports and rivalries as way to build bonds and connections with family and employees?’