Public versus Private Self: The Need for Self-Regulation in Family Enterprise

Wendy Sage-Hayward
Wendy Sage-Hayward

In life we have a public and a private self. This dynamic proves to be particularly complex when we consider the family business landscape. Our family is our private world – the business is our public world and yet in a family business they are intricately intertwined.

When we are in our family system, we operate with our private self. We not only let our hair down but we also let our guard down. Often we are willing to speak to and behave towards our family members in a way that we would never do to a stranger or a colleague. We are our best selves in our family but we most assuredly are also our worst selves in this realm.

When we start work each day, we have our “social controls” on. We are conditioned to behave and act a certain way when we are in public. It is like wearing our Sunday best dress. We put a smile on our face for our customers and for our employees.

For families in business together this dynamic can be particularly complicated.  It can be difficult to have a fight at dinner one night and expect to be friendly and at ease in the office the next day.  A father and son may have a particular challenge in their relationship where there is a great deal of anger and frustration on important matters but they must “turn off” the emotions associated with this challenge in order to function effectively in the business as partners or boss and employee. Family members must learn to self-regulate so that employees do not walk around the office on egg shells because they are dealing with “father and son” rather than “the boss and an employee”.

Self regulation is much easier said than done. The first part of self-regulation is self-awareness. Frankly, self-awareness is the easier of the two. Self-regulation takes intention and enormous discipline and practice.  It is like learning anything new, it takes a great deal of time and patience because we fail and fail again before we develop competence in what we are trying to learn.

Self-regulation starts with regularly facing the truth about the gap between our intention and our actual behavior  We have an infinite capacity for self-deception! Too often we point the finger at others and live in denial about our responsibility in the matter.  Self-regulation is facilitated by accountability. Accountability is both a defense  against our capacity for self-deception and a source of information about what is getting in our way which is often ourselves.

Ultimately, we need to pretend that a stranger is in the room every time we talk to our family so that we eventually treat them with a great deal more respect. In this case our private and public self would become more aligned and be more consistent with our value system.


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