Does everybody have a story about family owned businesses?

Business Leader Post, August 28, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

I can’t tell you how many times I've met somebody, and after I tell them what I do for a living, they say, “Boy, I wish I knew you years ago when ……." They then proceed to tell me heart rending stories about conflict between family members that destroyed the sense of family and frequently led to the closing of the business.

The common interpretation among these story tellers is that money does "funny" things to people. There is no doubt that money can have influence on the quality of our lives. (As Beatrice Kaufman, wife of playwright George S. Kaufman, once said, “I have been rich and I have been poor. Rich is better.”) At the same time, my response to the story tellers has been that it is never about the money. It is about the individuals' issues that have to do with how they experienced family and the impact of the family on them and their lives. I have been witness to huge conflicts with the same dynamics over family heirlooms that had little or no value on the open market, but had tremendous emotional value. The dynamics are the same because unresolved issues get played out through money and other objects including the family business.

The behavior between and among family members is directly correlated to the family’s value system. Those values are frequently left unspoken but are silently understood. What is relevant is whether or not those values were modeled by the senior generation and the generations that came before them. When you ask the story teller about the family‘s history, you will find, amazingly enough, that the same dynamic was present in previous generations. The conclusion of family system professionals is that if there is a conflict in the present generation, they have the opportunity to resolve it. If they choose not to or are unable to resolve the conflict, it will be a part of the family’s legacy and will be inherited by the next generation.

One of the key tenants that might be helpful for all families who find themselves arguing about money or material goods is to rid themselves of the fantasy that those things might give them wealth and/or happiness. As the saying goes, a wealthy/happy person is someone who is content with what they have.