Communication in family enterprises: The role of assumptions

Mike Fassler
Mike Fassler

Family enterprises are complex systems due in part to the overlapping roles of family, ownership and management. Effective communication in the midst of these overlapping roles is crucial to being able to work together effectively. Part of human nature is to use assumptions in an effort to simplify and make sense of complex systems. So it is natural for stakeholders in family enterprises to make assumptions as they seek to communicate with one another. It is these very assumptions that often get in the way of communication and in turn working together effectively.

An assumption is “something that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.” Assumptions have a powerful impact on communication because they can become fact in the mind’s eye, facts turn into beliefs and beliefs drive our behaviors. There is a tendency to make assumptions that are negative, cumulative and unspoken. This often results in a negative outcome of interactions with other family business stakeholders because the behavior, stemming from the assumptions, is not appropriate for the situation. At the extreme, the search for reinforcing evidence of being “right” can become the priority which can contribute to a downward spiral in trust.

For example, if a sibling partner assumes that sharing their viewpoint about their niece’s behavior and performance will be met with defensiveness by their sibling father, it is more likely that an important discussion will be delayed indefinitely. The negative outcome in this situation is that the niece is not provided with timely feedback that is important to her development as a manager and future owner.

What if the sibling partner’s assumption was changed and shared? For example, open the discussion with: “I am assuming all of us are interested in Tonia’s development as a manager and future owner, have her best interest at heart, and believe that timely feedback is important for her development and the future of our family business.” Stated agreement on the underlying assumptions helps all parties align on the purpose of what will still be a difficult conversation, yet an important one that will actually take place.

As you prepare for that next interaction with another family business stakeholder consider…

Asking yourself:

  • “What assumptions am I making that if fully disclosed, would more clearly communicate my intentions?”
  • “What assumptions am I making that if modified, might open up other possible outcomes?”

Asking the other person:

  •  “Can you help me understand what led you to that solution?”
  • “Is it possible to try another approach? If so, what might be an alternate outcome?”

Working effectively with other family business stakeholders is always going to involve the making of assumptions. Being transparent with what your assumptions are and being curious about others’ will contribute to more effective communication in your family enterprise.


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