Can success create conflict in family owned businesses?

August 25, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.


I was working with a family in which there were three sons, two of whom were in the business; the third son was a graduate student in education. The presenting problem was the significant sibling rivalry between the two sons who worked in the business. Walking down the hall to meet the family for the first time, I passed a sign on one of the son's office door which read, "It takes a genius to run this business." Further down the hall, I passed a sign on the other son's office door, which read, “It doesn’t take a (censored) genius to run this business.”

Needless to say, the members of this family were comfortable letting you know in no uncertain terms what they were thinking and feeling.  We--the mother, the father and the three sons-- were in a meeting with their attorney when things got very heated. Amidst a lot of shouting and accusations, there was a sudden knock on the door. The attorney had to take a very important phone call. 

I called the meeting to a halt and told everybody that we would take a pause in the conversation until the attorney returned. Lacking something to talk about, they started to reminisce about when they were struggling financially. They shared a number of stories about how they managed to get by and survive the challenges. They laughed and joked with one another and talked about the “good old days” when they had no money. As soon as the lawyer came back into the room, they started yelling again. 

What was this about? Their success had allowed them to take their eye off the ball.  It went to their heads. Each one thought that he was the key to the success.

Keeping a team/family together when you win can be difficult. Each person needs to focus not on his own accomplishments but on the reality that he could not have done it alone. Be careful. Winning is great, but the feeling of working as a cohesive unit/team is better.