Why Bother Talking About Family Values?

I had a conversation a few years ago with a family member of a large family business who told me she didn’t see the point of talking about family values. I have to admit that at that time I didn’t either. But now I’m a convert, having gone through the process with my own family.

Talking about shared family values gives you focus. If you don’t define and measure your actions against those values, you don’t know if you’re upholding the best parts of your family’s spirit. Values are the yardstick with which you can measure the work of the family council.

Here’s another way to look at it. In all kinds of relationships, it’s easier to begin a challenging conversation by talking about what you agree on first. In a family, too, it’s helpful to start difficult conversations by figuring out what you agree on. Families who are in business together may agree that they want to be good stewards of their family relationships, or that they want to be transparent in their communication. The conversation begins with this agreement, and then you can move on to talking about what changes need to be made for the business and the family to function better. But if you started by talking about changes or adjustments that need to be made, you’d get a lot of resistance. People don’t want to change the way they’ve done things. If you dive into talking about the areas you disagree about before establishing you common ground, most people will have a more reactionary approach.

Values act as the foundation agreements of a family. You can use them to make it easier to make decisions, or to implement change in a family.

For example, in one family I worked with, a concern was raised because the family had been sharing information over email for the last 10 years. Early on, it made sense because everybody had a computer at home and computers weren’t very portable. Over time, people started getting a lot more mobile with email—using iPads or smartphones and taking portable computers out of the house. The family’s way of sharing information began to be less secure. When they started measuring their actions against their values, they realized that by sending company information over emails they weren’t being good stewards of that information. There was a risk that somebody would lose their phone or have information stolen in some way.

In order to be good stewards, they could have they could have stopped sharing so much sensitive information, but they had other values that required them to share information. A commitment to inclusiveness meant they had to find a platform that worked for everybody, one that fit all different communication styles and preferences. And transparency meant they couldn’t stop sending that information out. They had to find a more secure communication tool that offered immediate access. They couldn’t as stewards stop sending out that information just because it was of the security risk. They had to find another way to get that information to the family.

The family decided to put the information on a secure portal. They provided iPads to everyone in the family, so each individual had secure access to crucial shared information. They upheld their core value of stewardship by safeguarding the information that was being sent out to the family. They were inclusive in that it was easy to read and accessible, and they offered training so everyone was able to use the new tools. And they were transparent in that they made it as easy to access the information as it had been before.

If the family had had this discussion without first talking about the values, if they had just said they needed to change how they share information by announcing that they were going to put the information in a portal, they would have gotten a lot of push back and resistance. People liked using email. It was very easy for them. But because they had that conversation, reminding the group that they all shared a desire to be good stewards, it became obvious that they needed to change their approach. The values-based conversation helped them all remember that they needed to find something that fulfilled their other values so they could be good stewards while also being inclusive and transparent with their information.

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