How did you know that the brothers had a problem?

March 2, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

While walking down the hall to the conference room for the first meeting with the family, I passed the older brother’s office. A sign on his door said “Genius at Work. “ Continuing down the hall, I passed the younger brother’s office. The sign on his door said, “It does not take an (expletive) genius to run this company.”  The rivalry and the conflict between the brothers was the presenting problem.

The first step in any of my consulting engagements is to do an assessment of the situation. The family and I discussed and agreed upon all the players who need to be interviewed. This is usually a combination of family members who are in the business, family members not in the business (potential future stockholders), spouses, key non-family employees and professional advisors.

When I interviewed the brothers, I found that there was clearly animosity between them. Their mutual hostility resulted from how each brother felt that the other one had treated him – not only from their interactions with each other, but also from what others had told them regarding behavior or speech that was disrespectful to the other brother. The individual meetings yielded personal differences, but their business differences were not that great. Each of them declared that they would rather get along than not.

We began a series of meetings with both brothers that had a most interesting result: Each of them reported that a key non-family employee (number two in command) was their “go to” guy whenever their business/personal relationship flared up. The father had delegated the management of his sons' relationship to this fellow, who, by the nature of his position in the hierarchy and by his responsibility for handling the two members of the next generation, wielded enormous power in the company. It turns out that he was creating conflict between the two brothers. He was marginally effective as an employee, and he had a vested interest in maintaining the conflict between the brothers.

This dynamic is called “splitting.” Non–family employees are very aware of conflict between and among family members and often will take advantage of that conflict to ingratiate themselves/advance their own agenda within the system. In this case the non-family employee kept the tension going between members of the same generation. You will also find it between members of the senior and next generation. Take a moment to reflect on who is telling you what about your family business situation. You may find an irritant. Of course the best antidote is to resolve the family conflict.