The Impact of Emotional Issues on Family Businesses

Carol Ryan
Carol Ryan

As a family business consultant who has a background as a family therapist, I often reflect on the profound impact of emotional issues on family business functioning.   

For example, I have always thought that from a developmental perspective it’s a bit wrong to grow up in a family, live with a family and then go work with your family. I say that not because I don’t believe in family businesses (I do!), but rather because it’s very difficult to become an individual AND to hold your own inside of your family system. And this can be made even more difficult by working with your family every day and maybe getting a bit “stuck” in your family role.

Developmentally, you need some kind of break, you need to spread your wings, go out in the world, work for someone else, make your own way and gather your self esteem from what you accomplish for yourself using your own brains, charm, personality, skills etc. This is certainly some of the reason that best practices suggest children work outside the business for three to five years before deciding to join the business.

When you move right into the family business sometimes you are locked into your role in the family, you are locked in by yourself, your parents, your sisters, brothers, cousins etc. and you probably do the same thing to them!

Some of you might find your ‘assigned family role’ is positive.  Maybe you are the one everyone thinks of as the leader so you get to continue with this role. But what if you are the troublesome black sheep?

How do you get past that and not continue to be labeled by your family?

In my case, I laugh about how at 52 years old my family still thinks of me as “the kid who constantly gets in car wrecks”….they used to call me Crash.

When I was talking about the car I recently purchased with my family members, the first thing out of everyone’s mouth was have you wrecked it yet?

Funny thing, I haven’t wrecked a car or gotten a speeding ticket for more than twenty years! But old labels take a long time to die – and apparently, some never really do…!

And on one hand it’s okay, as long as you still can stand up to people and forge ahead being who you are and not just becoming the person that everyone expects you to be. I promise you, I will not be having any car wrecks just to make my family happy or right!

People do change, we have to stand up and hold firm in our families and not cave to our “role” if it no longer suits us.

And even if you were always thought of as the leader that is not always such a great label either. Because when do you get a chance to NOT be that person? Leaders can really disappoint people when they don’t do what others expect, and the expectations are high – that is a heavy burden to carry.

I feel like all of us who are involved in the world of family businesses need to remember that these issues around family are always there and can be the most complicated, the most embedded, the most deeply internalized.

The emotional issues are difficult to deal with, but when you do, when as a family we start to respect who each member is, as part of a group AND as an individual, it opens up communication, it frees us from ourselves and our own internalized beliefs about who people think we are and it really makes us happier people. I believe that, and I have seen this truth in action countless times.

 In addition, once we can be authentic, mature individuals who have a perspective based on our individual experiences, as well as our family experiences, our contribution to the business can be even greater.

There is nothing more liberating than knowing who you are and letting your family see that, and then finding out that the reality is they accept us….because down deep families want the best for each other and more than likely, just want you to be happy.

2 thoughts on “The Impact of Emotional Issues on Family Businesses”

  1. Thank you Jenny for your thoughtful comment. Differentiation, which is the concept you are addressing, is without question one of the most difficult processes to master.
    To be able to speak with your family from your own perspective and not let the emotion of it get to you, is difficult.
    I think in a family business subjecting family members to the same processes as you do other employees is always useful to help with this struggle. And that means all processes, so how does one become an employee, key executive etc., having job description, job reviews, clear roles, kudos when you should get them and constructive criticism when you need improvement. Its really about defining the boundaries so that family members can achieve and develop self esteem. And I imagine you have seen other processes that would move this important developmental piece forward.

  2. This is a terrific perspective. And of course it works in the flip side: you can be pegged for a certain type at work, and that label stays with you for as long as you are in that workplace. If you are in the family business for a lifetime, are you able to experience a maturation process? What processes exist to encourage or acknowledge that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.