Insight Matters

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How to survive working with your family

Critical knowledge for thriving in a family business

This article is adapted from a talk given by Stephanie Thompson at the Private & Family Business Exchange in Sydney, October 2015.

How to survive working with your family

I was 35 years old before it dawned on me that my father has a pretty serious case of Asperger's Syndrome.  Asperger's is considered to be a type of high-functioning Autism.  It's the stereotype of the extreme geek, lampooned in TV shows like The Big Bang Theory.  The main character, Sheldon Cooper, is a rude, inappropriate, grossly insensitive and super-smart physicist.  He is, of course, also irritatingly lovable.

My dad was a rude, inappropriate, grossly insensitive and super-smart engineer and parent.  He was critical, aggressive, offensive, obsessive — and funny, diligent, reliable, honest, loving and tender.

It took me 35 years to realise why he had such a messy set of traits.

I should say that I was in two or three minds whether to tell you about this.  I am a Psychologist after all, and find this diagnostic oversight a little professionally embarrassing.  At the time I soothed myself with the notion that I wasn't able to diagnose my family because I'm not a Clinical Psychologist; I'm a Corporate Psychologist.  I specialise in organisational and human resources issues, not psychiatric or developmental ones.

Experience has since taught, of course, that this was a false distinction.  We all bring our quirks, conditions and neuroses with us wherever we go, including into the workplace.  Adults have developmental disorders too.  They don't suddenly cease at voting age.

No, it's not normal

The reason I decided I would admit to the diagnostic delay regarding my father is that it beautifully illustrates a central point of this article.  That point is that we profoundly normalise our family members and their difficult behaviour.  We don't think of our parents or siblings the same way we think about friends and colleagues.

Our family members' oddities are almost never attributed to mood problems, or developmental glitches, or the wonders of human variation that we forgive and even celebrate in other people.  We tend to blame questionable family behaviour on bad attitude or poor character — almost always on self-volition.

So friends have quirks and imperfections that add character, whilst family members are just fatally flawed by their own doing.

This double standard stems in part from the fact that we are exposed to our family intensively for at least seven years before we develop any capacity to reflect on the situation.  Children typically display the first signs of critical, reflective thought, at around this age.

Before age seven you were more or less a sponge, passively absorbing the norms and madness of your home environment.  It was all just normal to you.

Like every other child, you responded to this environment instinctively, by subconsciously developing strategies for getting your needs met.  The patterns of interaction that evolved from those efforts became stronger as the years passed.  All the while you were blissfully unaware.  You, your siblings and parents just slid into roles, like characters in your own a private family sitcom.

Let me explain…

Bullies, victims, saviours and prima donnas

These behavioural patterns start forming so early in life that we have no hope of being aware of them.  We are in fact perfectly blind to them, and actually become dependent on them.

For example, the subconscious story playing inside the head of an adult who chose The Martyr strategy to cope with their zany family early in life, might go something like this:  “I'm The Martyr so I feel good about going above and beyond, to the point of exhaustion.  Therefore I need you, the Unreasonable One, to be here to make excessive demands of me, because that makes it much easier for me to feel good about myself.  (But I will still complain about you while you're doing it, because you're being so bloody unreasonable, as usual!)

We tend to carry these relationship dynamics with us for a long time — far into adulthood — until that forehead-slapping moment when we realise what's going on.

So you might find yourself having the same issues with your brothers and sisters in your forties as you had when you were fourteen.

These patterns may reveal themselves to our consciousness for the first time, and often with much fanfare, when we choose a spouse.  When we pair up we tend to seek to recreate a familiar dynamic even if, sometimes, it's unhealthy or uncomfortable.

This is only, however, to the extent that these things remain below our conscious awareness, unexamined under the bright light of maturity.

The one most important thing

In psychological literature these patterns, or the roles which drive them, are sometimes referred to as family of origin archetypes.  That can get a little complex and airy fairy, so instead of diving down that rabbit hole I'm going to let you in on the one thing that in my experience is the most universally damaging of the dynamics that's likely to affect your family business — and, of course, what to do about it.

If you have children, think about them for a moment.  You may have noticed that they compete with each other for your attention.  (Um, yes… )  This can express itself simply at first, such as by clamouring to be on your lap, or hold your hand, or show you things.

As they get older, their competitive efforts to secure more of your parental resources and attention get increasingly creative.  Children often pick a role — their competitive pitch — quite early.  I'm the smart one;  the good one;  the clown;  the fragile one;  the cute one;  the trouble-maker.

Then they leverage it for all it's worth.  The better the results they get, the more they work their role.  It's their praise/attention/survival strategy.

The specific role that a child selects is less important, though, than the fact that it's always underpinned by competition for parental resources.

Survival of the most annoying

Why is this competitive (and exhausting) behaviour so universal?

Think for a moment about other species.  If you've ever seen baby birds close-up in their nest, they open their beaks wide, get right in their parents' faces, then waggle their heads and squawk.  Why don't they just sit politely and wait?  The food's coming anyway, right?!

If your dog has had puppies, those cute little bundles are not polite about sharing their mother's milk… “Pardon me. Oh please excuse my clumsy paw, after you…

Why do young animals compete so vigorously with their own kin?  Because if they didn't, they would reduce their likelihood of growing up strong, fit and fertile, and able to pass on their genes for waggly beaks, loud squawks and the fastest paws in the West.

It's survival.  Historically, it has been absolutely necessary.

That's why parents and teachers have to spend the first dozen years of a child's life trying to teach them to take turns, to be fair, to be considerate — and to realise that their very survival does not in fact depend on them getting there first, or having the most.

My point is that sibling competition is a primal, deep-seated instinct that exists below normal awareness.  It came into being long before humans were even humans — before rationality, before language, before almost everything.

For the same reasons, competitive behaviour between adult siblings is also often barely visible to our consciousness.

The net result is that the thing that drives most of the dysfunction in your family business is probably just unexamined, uncontained, adult sibling competition.

That's not fair Mum … um, Madam Chairman

How to survive working with your family

This hard-wired ancestral instinct to compete with your siblings is also the reason that perceived inequity from a parent can feel so painful.  Powerful pre-programming tell all of us, as small children, that we simply must rank near the top in our parents' eyes, else our very lives are at stake.  If we rank too low we'll be underfed, or overlooked and dragged off into the bushes by an opportunistic wolf.

When you were small, a lack of parental attention really was dangerous.

That's why when a colleague gets a bonus that you calculate is undeserved, it may really annoy you, but it generally isn't painful.  But when a brother or sister receives, by your calculation, an unearned benefit — or even an earned benefit — it can really fester and hang around as an issue.  It can feel like something that has to be urgently put right.

Just occasionally, it really should be.  I once had a client who was the daughter of a farming family.  In his will her father left her brother $5,000,000 of prime land, because he was the son.  She was given a dilapidated cottage in one corner as a token, because she's the daughter — and women, apparently, are taken care of by men, so they don't need anything.

She'll be ‘right.  That was her father's belief.

This capped off over 40 years of subtle and not-so-subtle messages in her family that she, who happened to have been born in a female body, was inherently worth less.  So she had adopted that belief, and played this miserable role as assigned.

This, though, was the last straw for her psyche.  It seemed to her that her father, on his death bed, had finally put an actual dollar figure on just how much less important she was than her brother.  Though he didn't see it this way at all, the pain she felt from it was so deep that she was barely able to speak about it.

Take out?  Parents, please treat your children equally.  But know that even when you feel as though you do, they may feel as though you don't, because they perceive things differently and value things differently.

You can, at least, please try.

The most commonly overlooked winning strategy

Reflect for a moment on the competitive tensions between adult siblings in your business, and the effect it's having on outcomes.  This competition is not an inherently bad thing, because it's entirely natural.  However, it's not functional in adults.  Business cultures and results tend to reflect this.

Business guru Jack Welsh spoke about a closely related phenomenon.  He was lamenting all the time that's wasted in businesses on making presentations to each other — on trying to look good, or protecting your patch:  “Don't sell hats to each other”, he said.  “Go out and do business.

Sibling competition is essentially the same problem.  A competitive spirit is fine provided you cast the net wide enough — you and your family as a united group, competing with the world.  Not wasting energy on outshining each other for more parental admiration or protection.

Many are unaware that Charles Darwin wrote about that other, equal and opposite, yet rarely discussed survival principle — cooperation.  I don't think he called it Survival of the Most Amenable, but he could have.  In business we survive because we compete, but usually we thrive only when we cooperate.

So how can you begin breaking down the unhealthy competitive family dynamics in your business, and leverage the synergies of cooperation?

As always, it begins with you.  Specifically, it starts with you developing self-awareness around your own competitive thoughts and behaviour.  It does not start with finger wagging at your competitive siblings!

Sit and reflect on it.  Observe your own thoughts and dynamics with each sibling.  Start noticing competitive inner chatter in all of its subtle forms — “Ha, I was right, she was wrong!”,  “Made him shut up!”,  “There he goes again, talking over everyone. I never do that.

Above all else, notice how the competitive dynamic no longer serves its original childhood purpose.  It's not, in fact, getting you more of what you want.  It's not helping you to survive at all.  It's certainly not making you happy.

I'd hazard a guess that it's doing the opposite, damaging both your business and your peace of mind.  Too much energy is being directed inward, instead of on selling hats to the world.

So if your sibling receives a different allocation of resources than you do, or a yes to an idea when you got a no, sit with it calmly.  Don't rage on it, because rage is the antithesis of rationality.  Notice how your life looks essentially the same the next day:  You still have food on your table.  You are still going to your Spanish/Aikido/Jazzercise class on Saturday.  Your dog still thinks you are outstanding.

Your survival does not depend on those extra dollars that your sister got, or on the extra mentoring dad bestowed on your brother.  You are an adult.  You feed and clothe yourself.  You build your own family.  You make your own happiness.  Your survival is not under threat from wolves in the bushes any more, and hasn't been for a long time.

What about them?

Let's say you've worked on this for a while.  You've done some reflecting and redirected your competitive energies outward toward the wider world.  What about the other lot?  Maybe your sisters or brothers are still butting heads, trying to one-up each other or win more parental favours.  What can you do?

Start the conversation.  Help them to see the old competitive patterns that you developed with each other as children, and how they no longer serve any of your individual purposes.  Apologise for your role.  Be the hero.

Critically, support their efforts in business.  Get excited when they succeed.  Listen to their ideas.  Help to calm their gripes with each other.  Redirect their energy positively into the world.

Most of all, cease your own competitive behaviour and fix your mind on cooperative synergy.  See what effect you can have, all by yourself, on your sibling dynamics.

By myself?!  That's not faaaair (mum, dad)!

Remember those dependency patterns we talked about?  What do you think happens when one person — you — changes their behaviour?

Of course, the dynamic dissolves.  It has to.  Its existence all of this time has been wholly dependent on both of you playing your roles in your family show.

Try it and you'll see.  Mix things up.  Your one-sided constructive behaviour, over time, effectively forces others to behave differently in response to you.  There can be no boxing match if the other guy — you — chooses never to step into the ring.

Bring tea and cookies instead, and see what happens.

Stephanie Thompson