How does the next generation deal with mixed messages from the senior generation?

Business Leader Post, May 30, 2012

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

With patience and reason—when there is a big decisions to be made in the family business context, it is common for family business members to feel caught between a “hard rock and a stone.”

For example, during estate planning, where the business is frequently the most valuable asset, the senior generation concerns itself with their adult children who are in the business as well as adult children who are not, e.g. non-management shareholders. The decision can easily become a parental decision between the husband and wife rather than a business decision for the owner/manager.

A more obvious situation arises when the senior generation is faced with “letting go.” The senior generation has the responsibility for making the decisions involved, and the impact of each of those decisions will resonate with both the family and the business. However, because there are so many feelings that he/she experiences with each decision, it is very difficult to have clarity.

It has been my experience that decision makers are not even aware of the feelings that I have ascribed to them. Their behavior of mixed messages represents the indecision and turmoil that they are going through. They just act those feelings out versus sitting down and trying to address them with the concerned parties.

My advice to the next generation is not to try to read their behavior as a sign of what they are thinking. You will only become more confused and agitated yourself. It would be wiser to acknowledge that the senior generation is having a difficult time making a decision and to empathize with the difficulty of their struggle. At the same time, the only way to free yourself from their dilemma is to let them know how long you can wait. Ask them to understand that you have a responsibility to yourself and others.