This week I had the privilege of providing a proposal for family systems work to a second-generation (G2) group of siblings. These siblings are just beginning their journey into taking over the family business, and they noticed some family dynamics issues cropping up, even at this early stage of their work together.
Preparing the proposal got me thinking about my own business journey and how much different it might have been had I had more awareness around my own functioning and how the dynamics between my husband and I influenced—no, shaped—the business we created together.
It’s fairly common for business families to bring in someone like me, a family systems coach, when their relationship systems are in disarray or when a major transition is imminent. It goes along with the “Big 6” of family business advising: succession planning, conflict resolution, governance, growth, strategy, and wealth management.
It’s not common, however, for families to engage my services as a strategic move. What struck me about this particular group of G2s was the timing of their ask. From all appearances, hell is not breaking out all over. I saw no evidence of hatred, frustration, impasse, or disdain. Rather, I saw a group of individuals who noticed something amiss, and on first impression, seem to want to work together to nip this—whatever “this” is—in the bud. Before whatever is there now becomes any more deeply entrenched in their family, business, and ownership systems.
I commend them.
And, again, they got me thinking about just how strategic their move is.
I look back on my own experience of copreneuring—owning a business with my husband. I’d like to think that every decision we made was rational, rooted in well-thought-out arguments and discussions, all supported by facts. I imagine that many, perhaps even most, were.
In retrospect, though, I can see how the relationship patterns both he and I brought to our partnership (and, of course, our marriage) contributed both positively and negatively to the company’s culture, leadership structure and means of decision-making, allocation of resources, and strategic direction, to name just a few. Patterns beyond the obvious one of conflict, which is what most people think is the biggest risk of mixing family and business. “We couldn’t possibly work together,” people would say to us. To which we would both laugh. Because conflict was not a hallmark of our life together.
Conflict is prevalent (and necessary) in all human systems. However, there exists a whole suite of more subtle and nuanced relationship patterns, patterns that operate automatically, under the surface of every relationship, but which are more intense and entrenched in families. The patterns shape the relationships and the relationships shape the patterns. It is one giant act of co-creation.
So what might I have done differently had I been aware of these patterns? How would our business have been different? I will never know, of course. But without digging very deep at all, I can think of several major decisions that were either subtly or overtly influenced by how my husband and I related. Below is a sampling.
Would I have even started the business at all?
When I met my husband, he was not employed in his profession, and it looked like it would be a long time, if ever, before he would be able to rejoin it. Our starting the business together was a reflection of our complementary skills, gifts, and competencies, to be sure, but there was also a more subtle dynamic at work. Was going into business together for me? for him? for both? How much of starting the business was done because it made strategic sense? How much was done because it was a way to relieve my anxiety about him finding and sustaining good work?
A Culture of Overfunctioning
Bowen Family Systems Theory teaches that one way a family system manages its anxiety is for someone in the system to overfunction. This in turn means that others in the system will underfunction. Overfunctioning was pervasive in our business. We had to meet extremely tight deadlines on low margins, and our work was detailed and complex. And, we set a high bar for excellence. All in all, it took an enormous level of productivity to meet our own and our customers’ expectations.
I would grow frustrated when I perceived people in the system, including my husband, not “pulling their weight.” A lot of unproductive energy went into me becoming resentful, doing more than needed to be done, taking responsibility for areas that were not mine to manage just to keep everything rolling. Did I really need to do all of that work? Did I really need to fill in all those gaps? Who knows. If so, then our business wasn’t really viable. It could only survive with superhuman effort.
It’s likely not true, though. Had I known that this pattern of over- and underfunctioning was common, typical, and simply one way a family system adapts to stress, I could have become more aware of the pattern, taken steps to interrupt it, and spent much less time being resentful and angry, and more time bringing forth and maximizing the strengths, gifts, and competencies of other members of the team.
Would we have made the same strategic decisions?
One major decision, in particular, my husband and I stalemated over. He and I did not agree, and it was not the kind of decision that offered compromise. We either were or were not going to do this thing. We stalemated for 18 months before I relented. There was a business case to be made for his preference; there was a marriage case to be made for mine. In the end, I ceded because I wanted to keep peace in our marriage and I believed we would weather the decision, whatever the outcome.
In that particular case, I knew the decision was being made on an emotional basis. I accepted that. What I wonder, in retrospect, was how many other decisions that were not so clearly “marriage or business” were also made out of emotion rather than reason.
Our company grew and we expanded into other states. I could see the value of doing so. And yet I knew it would put additional stress on the business, the marriage, and me in particular. Were our expansions rational decisions or emotional? Each step of growth increased our payroll and fixed expense obligations. They required us to secure a line of credit. Our level of risk grew. Did I accept our growth because it made good business sense? Or did I go along, as I had before, to keep harmony in our marriage? The previous 18-month impasse was excruciating. I didn’t want to repeat it.
I could go on and on. These are only three, rather significant, decisive aspects of our copreneurship. I cannot even imagine how many other less consequential decisions were tinged by the family dynamics.
(And, just a reminder, these dynamics exist in every human relationship system, not just families. These are human dynamics, not just family dynamics.)
I commend these siblings on taking steps to address the family dynamics issues that are beginning to evidence themselves now. This G2 has the potential to become aware of what these patterns are and how they play out in their particular family, and to harness them instead of being controlled by them. Think of the strategic wisdom this entails, the quality of the decisions that could be made, the diminishment of resentment, the emotional space they can gain to work together. Knowing about these dynamics may not change the outcome of any decision, but it will certainly give them a broader perspective from which to act and will, in my opinion, provide a measure of insurance against committing the business to strategic moves solely based on emotion.
It requires real work to see and subsequently begin to change these relationship patterns. Seeing the patterns and doing something about them are vastly different. But these folks have taken the first step, and it seems to me they are laying the groundwork for wise, strategic, long-term leadership.
They give me hope.