Family unity is a number one issue families should deal with if they want long-term business – and family – success. Put simply: if family members love and respect each other, it doesn’t matter what’s going on in the business. They are going to want to work together. When families are united, failures are met with support and viewed as educational possibilities, not as reasons for emotional conflict.
Conflict among family members, or anyone for that matter, never starts because the business isn’t performing well. In fact, the conflict will be present no matter how the business is performing.
Studies of the longest-surviving family businesses have found that there is one factor common to all of them when it comes to explaining their longevity.* It is that family members all felt connected to both the family and the business. What’s more, they felt connected both emotionally and financially – and the family invested in building emotional and financial bonds.
Emulating the success of Europe’s oldest family businesses isn’t easy. But here are two ways to encourage unity:
- Act as if. This approach is to act as if you love your family. And it means taking responsibility for your actions, rather than worrying about how you feel. You’re acting as if you love them and vice versa. This leads everyone in the family to feel better about each other.
- Higher order goal. This is about something being so important to family members that they will put aside any emotional conflict to achieve something greater. For many family businesses, to maintain unity and ensure a legacy is a compelling higher order goal. If you believe in a higher order goal, you will have more incentive to resolve conflict. It may even be about doing something better for society, like in the case of Bosch in Germany, which is owned by the non-profit Robert Bosch Foundation, and is one of the biggest philanthropic groups in Europe.
It is important for family businesses to understand and act upon the psychology of relationships. Psychologists and common sense tell us that good relationships are characterized by three things:
- The frequency of communication
- The duration of communication
- The depth of communication
Family members need to be willing to discuss things that are uncomfortable. Fear of discussion never reduces conflict.
Of course, families often have to deal with a lot of latent conflict. Typically, this can come to the fore when there is some external shock, such as a death in the family. For family businesses, unaddressed conflict can lead to destruction.
Unity is a psychological concept that some family businesses might find hard to comprehend. Too often, family members ignore problems and latent conflict will build. But while forging unity can be a lengthy process, it might be easier to achieve than you think – especially if you follow the guidelines above.
Joseph H. Astrachan, Wachovia Eminent Scholar Chair of Family Business and Professor, Coles College of Business, Kennesaw University
* Torsten M. Pieper and Joseph H. Astrachan. Mechanisms to Assure Family Business Cohesion: Guidelines for Family Business Leaders and Their Families