The Myth of Working with the Family System

Myth: The consulting focus should be on the entire family system only.

Reality: Focusing on the individual earlier in the consulting process may help bring needed change. Case in point, twice in the past six months, two family enterprises with whom I have been working have decided to break the business partnership because one of the siblings wanted out. Each sibling group had been given equal shares of ownership in the company. None of the siblings were asked if they wanted to be partners with each other. And none of the siblings ever questioned the actions of their parents. In fact they were grateful for being considered as equal owners of the family enterprise.

However, in both cases ownership came with a price of inclusion into a system that was harmful to at least one of the individuals, and hence escalated conflict within the group. The pressure each individual felt to remain an owner kept them in turmoil. After working together with the group for some time to develop a cohesive vision of ownership, those particular individuals in each of the groups decided to exit ownership. In retrospect, more focus on each of the individuals earlier in the process may have brought the needed relief the system needed.

“. . . families are governed by relational rules and tradition and therefore resist change. For most individuals, the family is a primary source of identity and belonging, providing a sense of safety and protection. It is through a sense of loyalty to, and interdependence with, other family members that predictable patterns of interaction emerge. A result of those predictable patterns is homeostasis with the family. Family members also feel secure knowing that, in most cases, other family members can be trusted to fulfill their roles and obligations. . .” even if those roles and obligations are creating discord.

As Lumpkin, Martin and Vaughn argue in their research (Family Orientation: Individual-Level Influences on Family Firm Outcomes, Family Business Review, 2008):

Family members believe deeply that they must stay in the prescribed roles because there is a sense of belonging and security; but there is also a sense that this belonging is creating an inner turmoil. To change an individual role within a family system is extremely difficult and takes courage.

Bowen theory argues that individuals trying to individuate from families who are tightly connected and have high influence can experience high anxiety or reactivity as they try to separate themselves. To relieve the anxiety in the system, the highly reactive family will push for the one thing that the individual is resisting — togetherness. This is exactly what each of these individuals felt. But then the family system cannot change. Hence the influence on the business or ownership system is impacted — unless at least one person has the courage and capacity to remain strong and resist the pressures of the system. If focus on the individual had occurred sooner in the consulting process, the conflict in the system could have been eased earlier in the process, with perhaps a different result for the ownership group.

Much of the training of family business advisors focuses on the family and rightfully so. It is the family system that can affect the business and ownership system and vice versa. We are taught from early on in our practices that the entire family should be our focus in the consulting process. Tagiuri and Davis (Bivalent Attributes of the Family Firm, Family Business Review, 1982) showcased their three circle model depicting the family, business and ownership systems and their potential influences on each other. The enduring model was (is) simple and elegant and created awareness and understanding for practitioners, academics and families on the complexities that can occur when these systems overlap.

However, the focus of the individual is somehow missing. This is the myth: we as consultants can bring change and can help families manage and even resolve their conflict with each other by focusing on the entire family. Interpersonal conflict in the family enterprise by definition does not occur in a vacuum. However, if one of the people in that struggle can act differently, can change in a positive way, can remain strong, can withstand the enormous pressure to return to the role which he or she plays, the system interaction will change. Change, perhaps, in enough of a way that the conflict will abate.

We as consultants alone cannot manage or resolve our clients’ conflict. Realistically we will fail to effect any lasting change unless there is at least one individual who is ready and willing to examine his/her role and reaction to the family. When we look at systems theory, we understand that there is tremendous pressure from the system to remain static. The families who work through it on a regular basis include individuals who are ready to question their own actions, reflect on their involvement in the larger system of the family (and in turn potentially the ownership and business system), and decide to act differently than he/she has done in the past. It is then and only then that others in the system can change. But the system will be in turmoil until a new normal can take place.

It takes a lot of strength for an individual to stay the course. Carmen Lence (How Coaching and Consulting Work Together to Complete the Puzzle of Sustainable Change, FFI Practitioner) already addressed the challenges and made her suggestions. I believe she is on the right path. She suggests the following challenges and differences between coaching and consulting:

  • Consultants provide expert solutions, while coaches provide skills to help individuals or teams to find their own solutions.
  • Consultants are not always willing or prepared to deal with the emotional impact that change may have on their clients; coaches are comfortable dealing with the emotional side of change.
  • Consultants are generally focused on change at the organization level, coaches are generally focused on change at the individual level (with the exception of team coaching).

So how, as practitioners, do we work with individuals who can bring change, yet remain true to the family? Can we effectively work with the individual and the family at the same time or do we also need to get an individual coach to help us? In our field, more research and training needs to be accomplished that focuses on the individual and one-on-one consulting within the family system. Perhaps more focus on the individual within the system can help us overcome the myth that working only with the family will create lasting change.

About the contributor:

 Deb Houden, CFBA, CFWA, is a consultant with the Family Business Consulting Group, Inc. She specializes in helping family-owned businesses with family communication, transition, and next generation development by providing resources, tools, and knowledge that are needed to navigate their specific issues. She is also a faculty member for GEN 102: Self in Systems: Systemic thinking, genograms and the role of the family enterprise advisor. Deb can be reached at [email protected].