By Deborah Houden, PhD
Communication in business is paramount to success. A business is typically made up of a group of people who must come together to create a product or service that someone else needs or wants. Glance through any major business periodical and you will find an article on the importance of communication for leadership, team development, bottom line, etc. In a family business, the need for communication is vital to business and relational success. But communication is not the only necessary ingredient. For a family business to function at an optimal level, clear communication must be joined with aligned expectations to get superior results.
What exactly is a family business? There are many forms, from sole proprietor to publicly traded (albeit family-controlled) corporations. The most comprehensive definition is where an entrepreneur or subsequent generation leader and one or more family members influence the strategic direction of a business. For many, sharing work and family is a dream: however, that dream can turn into a nightmare. Some of the most common issues in a family business s tem from lack of communication and misaligned expectations including: planning (or absence of) for leadership succession; sibling rivalry, parent/ child (generational) miscommunication; old wounds among family branches pervading over current generations; over/ under functioning of family members within the business; ill-defined roles of family member employees; family members who should not be employed by the business at all. When these issues start to crop up, they are like a watered weed in the hot sun. They explode and creep into every beautiful thing.
Clear communication is vitally important but sometimes very difficult to achieve. Tricky family dynamics that can be managed outside of the business get amplified when working together is added to the mix. Perceptions, family stories and past experiences all can muddy the work/family relationship. Clear communication is comprised of listening to what another has to say, gaining perspective by trying to understand the other’s point of view, and by bringing up issues while they are still young (the issues, not the participants). If those three components (and there are others) are managed well, communication will become clearer.
Listening is not hearing. Hearing is simply the act of perceiving sound, a passive act that is always turned on. We hear many sounds each day that simply go in and out of our awareness. Listening, on the other hand, is a conscious choice to focus on the word s, understand their meaning, put them in context and make sense of the message. It is a skill that can be honed, but also a skill that can be lost. The refined skill of listening is so instrumental to effective communication that executive coaches focus specifically on it. Listening effectively conveys the message of caring, understanding, and value. However, there is a lot that can go wrong when listening skills are weak.
The brain can do funny things when we listen half-heartedly: it can fill in missing words that sound similar to what we heard; it can add words in; and it can add meaning to words that were not the intent of the speaker. Perceptions shape the world that is viewed: people ascribe meaning based upon their own circumstances and experiences. This is why two people can be part of the same experience and come away with different versions of what happened. In a family business, the family members have experiences with each other that have nothing to do with work. Parents know all of the strengths and weaknesses of their children, most of their goof-ups and successes. Children rarely know the whole story of their parents. Siblings have experiences with each other that color how they think of each other. Siblings that did not get along with each other in childhood may bring those positions into the work place. Families are also notorious for gossiping in the context of keeping everyone informed. This can be poison to a healthy family system.
Finally, for communication to be clear, what is not communicated is just as important as what is. Families are filled with topics that are taboo. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in family businesses when not all members work in the business. When a child brings up a topic, and is told that “we don’t talk about that,” the child learns to keep quiet. The child’s b rain does not necessarily comply. The human brain fills in the blanks with the information available; when the information is limited, the thought process is limited. Another example is when some event happens in the business and a family member wants to talk about it. If they approach another family member and are rebuffed, they soon learn not to ask difficult questions. Difficult questions and difficult discussions are as important to learning how to communicate effectively as laughter and congeniality. Families who communicate effectively do both.
Here are five things to think about that will help you help your family communicate more clearly:
• Am I truly listening to someone else, or planning my rebuttal as they speak?
• What am I assuming? Do I have the same information as everyone else? How much are my views shaping the meaning of what someone else is trying to tell me?
• What am I not saying that is important for others to know? • What topic am I afraid to talk about in my family? Why?
• Communication takes practice, circling back to make sure all information is out there, checking assumptions, and then practicing again.
Many conflicts in a family business are simply based upon misaligned expectations. Employment qualifications, roles, responsibilities, promotions, and potential ownership can all be grounds for assumptions and heart• break. When expectations are not in alignment, all sort of problems happen; people do not perform to a level that others expect, act in certain ways that others expect, or perceptions of ability and performance flare out of proportions. When expectations are not met, people get disappointed. Family members set up expectations for relatives at work, with family, spouses, children, and parents. Then get disappointed and hurt (resent) when people or situations don’t live up to those expectations.
Expectations need to be explicit. Family business members need to begin dialogues over what the expectations are for involvement, for responsibilities, and for options that affect futures. Parents need to be explicit with their children of the opportunities available for each child. Parents also need to be realistic about their expectations of themselves and their children. Children need to be open and honest with parents about their fears, needs and wants, and what they want to achieve in the family business. For each child who wants to work in the family business, there is another who works there yet wants to be somewhere else. Resentment and disappointment swell when expectations are not met on both s ides.
It is crucial to take time to develop work-related roles with requisite responsibilities, and then be explicit about how those responsibilities will be measured. In addition, it is equally important to be clear about who is going to hold each other accountable. Family businesses are riddled with stories of members who are not pulling their weight. Many times, especially with younger members, the expectations are not crystal clear. It is not only the job that doesn’t get done, but the relationship between the family members suffers, too.
Communication only becomes effective within families if it is practiced regularly. If you are part of a family who struggles with communication, start gently and build up your skills. Try to practice your listening skills on each other. It takes time and patience, but you will get better. Keep your perceptions in check, and make sure to remember that by not talking about a topic, you are communicating plenty of information, just not what you might want others to know. Make sure everyone is on the same page with expectations so each person knows what they are doing and how they are supposed to be doing it. Talk to your children/ parents about their hopes and dreams inside and outside of the business. Dreams, goals, careers and involvement may not b e what was dreamed of, but with open communication and shared expectations, the results are superior.
Deborah P. Houden, PhD. is a consultant with the Family Business Consul ting Group, Inc. in Chicago, IL, and online at www.efamilybusiness.com. She will be speaking on Tuesday, May 6, 2014, at the 2014 MHEDA Convention at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando in Orlando, Florida.