Asset sharing families often struggle with questions of fairness. It’s a familiar dilemma: Must we treat all family members the same (equally) in order to be fair? An affirmative response requires ignoring differences between people and this may be perceived as unfair and paternalistic. A more realistic approach is to recognize the differences and to be transparent in discussions, explaining WHY family members are being treated differently.
Family members occasionally resist really listening to each other out of fear that listening signifies agreement. Not true. In fact, good communication may occasionally be reinforced by the conscious intention to not express agreement or disagreement, but simply to listen. That’s harder for some people than for others.
All of these aphorisms have a similar goal: To suppress open communication about potentially disturbing topics. But suppressed communication does not mean an issue is not present. On the contrary, it is often the things we don’t talk about that have the most impact in our relationships. The solution is to create a process for safely putting issues on the table, accompanied by mutually respectful listening and problem solving. A third party facilitator can really help in this regard by helping to identify the right issues, promoting good listening and driving toward effective problem solving.
While of course good communication is important for all families , the stakes are higher for asset sharing families. Communication breakdown, conflict, and family dissension may affect not only family relationships, but business integrity and the livelihood of family members, employees, community members and many other stakeholders. So asset sharing families would be well advised to make good communication an integral part of family culture, something to strive for, to nurture and to preserve.
I noted in my earlier blog three factors that inhibit change in a family: Inertia, Fear of the Unknown and Psychological Reactance. Here are three guidelines for promoting change.
Vision and Values
Clarifying vision and values through family meetings or individual discussions, and documenting your findings, can add energy to a family system by raising hopes for the future and will help to alleviate Fear of the Unknown by articulating clear family goals.
Inclusiveness, Open Dialogue and Good Questions
Much of the energy for change comes from process. How do you create a good productive process? Ensure open dialogue. How do you do that? Schedule opportunities to discuss change and why you want it to occur. I occasionally ask families to sit down with each other and give each person a chance to speak uninterrupted for 10 minutes at a time.
Asking questions ensures that people feel included and valued. This enhances the sense of choice in a family.
Questions are an opportunity to learn what a person is really thinking without his or her feeling coerced or pressured to do anything in particular.
There are some questions that persist in your mind for weeks, months or years, and continue to spur curiosity and engagement. You know that a question is effective in this way when the question is met with a long pause, or when the person says “Gee, I never thought of that before” or “I never knew the answer until you asked the question”.
Balanced Task/Process Orientation
All of this requires a balance between leadership that is focused on accomplishing a task and leadership that is attentive to process. And sometimes leading change in family requires a very different set of skills than leading change in a business.
Some business leaders are incredible visionaries and very bold and they will “go where no one has gone before” because they are hard charging and tough. The problem is that sometimes these business leaders find that they have left their families behind. Or more accurately, the family has not decided to move ahead with them.
I worked with one family in which the family leaders created a transition agreement to the next generation that was visionary and generous and would have permitted the next generation to assume ownership at a very good price and over a reasonable period of time. They spent a small fortune on attorneys’ and consultants’ fees to create the plan. The problem was that the next generation as a group couldn’t tolerate each other personally; but the family leaders never had a real sit down to discuss the situation.
What helps in the business context – focus, drive, task orientation – may well get in the way on the family side.
Leading change in a family means being able to balance both of these orientations.
Family leaders are in the business of promoting change in their families, yet change is often difficult to implement. Here are three reasons why:
The Principle of Inertia
Newton’s first law of motion states that to change direction, an object in motion requires the application of an external force. This is the concept of inertia.
Inertia: the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force.
Once set in motion in one direction, the universe doesn’t like objects to change direction. So inertia requires the application of an external force. Families are like that. Implementing new practices in a family requires the application of energy. And as we know, energy is at a premium when family members are active in their businesses, personal and family lives. I often hear people complain that introducing change in a family is difficult. Well it is. So the need to apply energy when introducing new practices is simply the natural course of events. Change takes time, energy and patience.
Fear of the Unknown
Nobody wants to step off the deep end without knowing what they will be stepping into. I worked with one family where we discussed a very important recommendation – restructuring their board of directors so that board members were there not to represent branches but to contribute to the business. The family was strongly resistant to the idea – “We have always done things this way”, one member said to me, “How do we know that your recommendation won’t make things worse for us?”
Worse than a constant battle over equal representation?
Well, as they say “Better the Devil you know than the Devil you don’t….”
Psychological reactance occurs when a person believes that his or her choices are being restricted by others. Reactance will then cause a person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what is intended, and will increase resistance to persuasion.
Now this is very important: When people feel that they do not have a choice or that choices are limited, they are likely to react in two ways: – they push back against the change , or they spend lots of time thinking about how to remove whatever constraints they believe are being imposed.
That’s why it is so important in succession and wealth transfer planning for next generation people to feel that have had a voice in the planning process. This is the reasoning behind the principal of inclusiveness in family governance.
I have been reading “Rights of Man” published in 1791 by Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of the American Revolution. This monograph was published as a commentary on events leading up to the French Revolution and the governance of nations. I find it fascinating to consider the relevance of these writings to our work on governance of family enterprises. While there are many interesting parallels, I focus on a few below, with Paine’s words in italics.
Principally, Rights of Man opposes the idea of hereditary government — the belief that dictatorial government is necessary, because of man’s corrupt, essential nature. Paine wrote:
Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself in all cases as the age and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies….
Need we say more about the challenge that founders face when they consider passing a business or family wealth to the next generation? You can’t govern from the grave.
Every generation is, and must be, competent to all the purposes which its occasions require…..
And yet it should be emphasized that generations who wish to assume governing responsibility must be competent (educated, informed, engaged) to that task.
The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist….
Legitimate systems of governance evolve from a conscious and intentional decision to freely associate. Some of the most flawed systems of family governance that I have observed are composed of family members who do not believe they have a choice – or do not own the choice they made – to be a part of the system.
The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living or the dead…?
Whatever system of governance is implemented, it should be understood that policies and expectations are dynamic and evolving and should change over time to accommodate a family’s changing circumstances.
It requires but a very small glance of thought to perceive that although laws made in one generation often continue in force through succeeding generations, yet they continue to derive their force from the consent of the living….
It is incumbent upon governed parties to revisit and renew their agreements. Choice in successive generations that is revisited and renewed helps to ensure legitimacy of a system of governance and can help sustain the system over time.
by David Lansky, Ph.D.
I was asked the other day what I thought were the qualities of a healthy family….
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
– Leo Tolstoy.
“I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”
– US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart
Defining a healthy family is a little like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity: Hard to define, but you know one when you see one.
– David Lansky
That being said, there are a few consistent qualities that seem to characterize what we call healthy families:
- LOVE: Love, appreciation and positive regard are expressed by family members toward each other.
- EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION: Family communication is clear, open and frequent.
- ENCOURAGEMENT: Mutual support, recognition, and respect are given by family to family.
- COMMITMENT: One observes a sense of family identity and unity, and sacrifices are made to preserve family well being.
- FLEXIBILITY: The family demonstrates an ability to adapt to change, as change inevitably occurs.
- SOCIAL CONNECTEDNESS: The family values friends, extended family, neighbors and community.
- CLEAR ROLE DEFINITION: There is a role for everyone and everyone has a role in achieving the common good.
- AFFINITY: They like being together.
And from my colleague Craig Aronoff, with whom I discussed these points, one last quality…
- COMMON GOOD: a shared sense of common good, common goals and collective well being.
If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say:
A healthy family promotes the well being of each individual family member by creating a sense of loving belongingness, by enabling access to resources both within and without the family, by adapting to changing circumstances, and by encouraging open and honest communication amongst its members.
Many people have written about trust in human relationships. I have collected some quotes on the topic and list some of my favorites below:
Our distrust is very expensive. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. –Henry L. Stimson
He who mistrusts most should be trusted least. –Theognis
Whenever the people are well–informed, they can be trusted with their own government. – Thomas Jefferson
Trust men and they will be true to you; treat them greatly and they will show themselves great. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Those who trust us, educate us. — George Eliot
Mistrust begets mistrust. Trust begets accomplishment. –-Tao Te Ching
For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. –H. L. Mencken
Relationships of trust depend on our willingness to look not only to our own interests, but also the interests of others. –Peter Farquharson
No matter how well intentioned, family relationships can sometimes go awry and trust can be broken. There is no simple solution to rebuilding trust, but here are some guidelines:
- If you have violated another party’s trust, you must admit that a violation has occurred and ask for forgiveness.
- Understand that questions about trustworthiness will continue for quite some time. You will therefore need to be tolerant and patient.
- Dedicate yourself to the attributes of reliability, intimacy and honesty.
- Seek to understand and resolve the reason for the violation, because if that is not managed, trust may well be broken again.
Sometimes there is a lack of trust that stems from historical dynamics, hurts or injustices. If that’s the case, then people in the present may be unable to change the situation no matter how hard they try. In these types of situations, the person or persons who feel they have been victimized will PRESUME that certain others cannot be trusted – even if those individuals have not themselves done anything objectively ‘wrong’. Those who see themselves as victims of a historical injustice will have to work hard on themselves.
- If you experience a lack of trust that is rooted in the past, admit to yourself that your lack of trust may not derive from wrongs that have been committed in the present.
- Be clear that you WANT to trust again.
- Be willing to forgive.
- Seek and affirm instances that CONTRADICT your presumption of distrust.