Managing Family Dynamics in Family Council Meetings
Like any team, a council goes through predictable stages of development. Awareness of the process helps to build trust.
by Susan D. Lesser, Partner, nPlusOne Consulting (Reprinted with permission.)
Many people consider the merging of family and business almost as appalling as mingling church and state. However, in a family council, combining family with business is not only purposeful: it is mandatory. Accordingly, family dynamics must be considered during each phase of the council’s creation.
In its most basic form, a family council is simply a multifunctional team. Like any team, it follows the predictable developmental stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. While family dynamics are present in every stage of development, during each, they can be expected to evolve.
In the forming stage, the family council begins meeting, discovering and refining the reason for its existence, and working to articulate its goals, as well as exploring opportunities and challenges. During this stage, family dynamics are at their most varied. In more closely knit families, this step is relatively calm and uncomplicated. Work proceeds productively to its defined end.
Smaller families that are not as comfortable together will engage only in small talk and safe conversation, often punctuated by uncomfortable laughter. Larger family settings are more reminiscent of a junior high school dance. Cliques are clustered along the walls with a few brave souls (generally those who initiated the family council) mingling in the middle of the room.
Some families include a third-party facilitator to bring the members together safely, respectfully and methodically. In the beginning, the fear of conflict is so great that individuals remain on their best behavior. Resentments over issues such as who did what to whom are barely noticeable to the casual observer. Those who have strong differences of opinion often choose to hold their thoughts inside, rather than jeopardize family harmony. This is the straightforward portion of family council work. Nothing impactful is being decided, so threatening feelings are minimal and therefore easy to control.
In a family council, storming is the most pivotal stage because if it is not negotiated properly, the family could remain here permanently. This stage is termed storming because of the stormy behaviors exhibited when team members seek to align their individual perspectives with one common end, augmented by the growing realization that the task at hand might be more difficult and complicated than initially anticipated. At this time, family members are determining which issues they will tackle as a council:
- What will the leadership of the council look like?
- How will the council leadership pass between members?
- What will be handled individually and reported back to the group?
- What will be managed exclusively through a group process?
The consequences and ramifications of decisions made during the storming phase are critical to the future actions of the family council.
Family dynamics change in this stage of development. The stakes now are considerably higher, so council members can no longer afford to hold their tongues. Meetings often become contentious or even hurtful. Sucker punches are pulled. Offline meetings occur, and triangulation: the inclusion of a third person in a conflict between two others: runs rampant. One contentious issue that might arise during storming is employment eligibility requirements for family members who wish to enter the business.
The destructive nature of storming, when left unchecked, is legendary. Yet family dynamics can be managed. Professional direction is often helpful.
Effective storming involves setting and respecting rules: rules for coming up with ideas, rules for sharing ideas and rules for respecting ideas. To best be assured of a positive outcome, council members must learn how to have a productive conflict. In a productive conflict, all parties are active stakeholders who work to resolve the issue so that it can be considered a win-win: or at least a tolerable-tolerable: situation. Techniques for having difficult conversations, such as active listening, must become routine.
During norming, the family council begins to resemble a well-oiled machine rather than a broken-down, sputtering engine connected with frayed wires. Consensus is reached on council rules, behaviors, communication methods and taboos.
The norming period does pose its own set of challenges. One trap is the onset of groupthink. When this occurs, everything is proceeding so smoothly that no family member wishes to upset the rhythm and revert to the tumultuous days of the storming phase. “Getting along” becomes valued more than “getting it done” and, consequently, an unhealthy apathy may slow the council’s progress to a virtual standstill.
All sticky matters have been resolved during the storming phase. Trust begins to develop because it has been earned through shared experiences during the forming and storming stages.
Enough cannot be said about the importance of trust in this process: not trust that Mom is good at analyzing numbers or that Junior is strong in the area of marketing, but trust that the members each have the interest of the family at heart and will put it before their own self-interest or their personal agendas.
During norming, family members begin to feel a sense of accomplishment. If they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, they all at least agree that they see the same tunnel. The key to controlling family dynamics during this phase is to build on the trust that has been created by having council members actively identify group activities, consensus items or joint statements that were able to come into existence specifically because trust now exists within the group. If a council seeks to phase out the professional facilitator, this could be the final role for that person.
At this point, the family council has achieved success. By highlighting individual strengths and compensating for individual weaknesses, the team is able to function as a unit. All members agree that the whole has become greater than the sum of its parts. Dissent is encouraged. Conflict is productive.
A family council that reaches the performing phase is fully integrated. Members are accepted both because of and despite who they are.
By the time performing is reached, the family council’s objectives are clear, processes are functioning and results are achieved. The greatest challenge, from a family dynamics perspective, is dealing with change: a family member leaves suddenly or a new family member is brought in. Consequently, the council must establish definitive processes for integrating and orienting new members. Additionally, cross-functional training must take place regularly so that no voids are created with members’ departures.
Time and experience have proved that family councils ultimately strengthen a family business. However, when people and personalities are involved, nothing is certain and nothing works for everyone. On rare occasions, a family council is probably not in the best interest of a particular family: at this time. Bringing together the hurt son, the overbearing father, the conciliatory mother, the alienated daughter-in-law and so on is a dance of daring and finesse. Because of the family history and individual personalities, these people have very different agendas, and uniting these disparate views is sometimes impossible.
In these cases, the family dynamics run so deep that they become as essential to the family functioning as water is to a plant. The house of cards encasing the behavior patterns is so delicate that it cannot withstand the shaking and scrutiny inevitable with the formation of a family council: yet. It is sometimes advisable for specific people: those critical to the group’s success who nonetheless have the greatest potential to derail the process: to enter into individual therapy prior to the creation of the council.
Alternatively, groups may opt to begin interaction by holding several nonthreatening family meetings with social emphasis. These events start building trust and confidence in the process.
A foundation of trust
Family dynamics are inevitable in family councils. Keeping these behavior patterns in check is critical in order for a family council to achieve its goal of business growth through family unity and continual, open communication. As the council moves through the stages of team development, the behavior patterns change. Family council members must learn how to work together effectively and decrease the chances for disruptive conflict. This can be achieved through implementation of formal decisionmaking processes and family accountability rules, often with professional assistance.
Overcoming family dynamics requires effort and commitment on the part of all concerned. The foundation for this dedication is a trust developed over time and through the participation in collective experiences. Family dynamics are certain to arise in a family council, but they need not have an adverse impact. With calculated thought, planning and effort, tools can be put in place at every stage of a council’s development to fortify this method of governance against problematic behavior patterns: moving it ever closer to success.
nPlusOne Consulting partners with a wide variety of clients, across a range of industries, to strengthen their business from the core. The firm improves financial results by increasing employees’ performance through a proprietary process of diagnosing, training and benchmarking. They also guide lasting culture change and improve bottom-line results by instilling the efficiencies of a team culture, while enhancing communications throughout the organization as a whole. More information
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