When Family Doesn’t Feel Like Family

Many families think that a 4th or 5th generation business-owning family should act and feel like a 1st generation family. That leads to strain and conflict or a feeling of inadequacy. Trying to have a sibling or cousin relationship with a second or third cousin just feels strange, and yet I have spoken with many families who believe like they should act more like a family with the people with whom they co-own a business.

My response to them is to ask them if they have stayed in close contact with 4 or 5 generations on the side of the family that doesn’t own a business. Family in a family business is an artificial construct when you get to 4 or 5 generations. Don’t get me wrong, many excellent relationships can develop within a family-owned business, but expecting close connected relationships with all 40 or 140 of your fellow family members is impossible.

Many families enjoy much commonality, like shared values and similar upbringing. But there are also vast differences as a family business grows – differences in dividends and other income, growing up in different environments, having parents who worked in the family business or parents who never even went to meetings, parents who felt loved and accepted by the family and those who felt misunderstood or rejected. That creates unique individuals with very different perspectives.

It’s far better to strive to build and maintain good working relationships than try to build family feeling amongst many disparate family business members. The feelings of family can be generated through working together and building context for your relationship. Some families volunteer together for Habitat for Humanity, or other charitable organizations. Others work together on specific task forces or projects for the family council. It doesn’t matter what you do, just so long as you are working consistently for a common goal, and provide some time for socializing around the event. This will create the opportunity to get to know one another without the pressure and expectation of feeling like you should feel like family.

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