When Structural Solutions Aren’t Sufficient

When Structural Solutions Aren’t Sufficient

Plenty of business families have problems when siblings are placed into positions where conflicts are almost inevitable.  So there’s a natural tendency to look for an easy “work-around”, where the hope is that a simple structural change will make all the problems disappear.

This is what we’ll be looking at this week, thanks to another real live case from an overseas colleague who contacted me recently.

Let me start with the original set-up.

Two Brothers Stepping on Each Other’s Toes

The story, as it was related to me by my colleague, was that her client family had an operating company in which two rising generation brothers both worked.

Here comes the difficult part; they don’t get along, they don’t even speak to each other.  Clearly this is sub-optimal, we can all agree.

The question posed to me was if I had any experience in finding or creating a structure where they would not have to speak to each other.

The “Economy-Size” Box of Band-Aids

My reply to my friend was that I did not have any experience in setting up such structures, which is true. I also added that creating such an operational structure, in which they would not have to interact, would simply be putting a Band-Aid on the problem.

When you get right down to it, this issue of boundaries is quite common in many family businesses.

But in the end, if you choose this as your only remedy, you will continually need to re-apply new Band-Aids on a regular basis.

Yes, Structures ARE Necessary

I want to be clear that I’m not saying that clear structures and boundaries are not important; they certainly are.

Please note the adjective “clear” there, as it’s one of the keys.

What’s another key?  I’m glad you asked.

Another important aspect of any boundary is that it be mutually-agreed upon, and hopefully even co-created, by those on either side of the boundary.

No, Structures are NOT Sufficient

So one of the main points here is that the structure itself will rarely be sufficient to solve the issue. These brothers may be able to co-exist for some time with a structure that is imposed upon them so as to minimize of even eliminate their interactions.

It seems logical enough, I agree; they don’t speak to each other, so let’s set it up so that isn’t necessary, and, voilà, problem averted.

But just as swerving your car back into your lane to avoid an accident as you’re falling asleep while driving may have “averted” one accident, if you don’t change the essence of what’s going on, it’s bound to arise again.

Parents as a Buffer or Mediator

The details about the parents were not shared with me in this particular fact set, but I assume that they’re still around and playing key roles.

This is great, and should be capitalized upon, but everyone should also recognize that it won’t last forever.  In fact, if things go the way they usually do, the offspring will outlive their parents.

So let me ask the obvious question: What are they going to do after their parents are no longer around?

Family Dynamics Problems Need to Be Addressed…

I think that anyone looking at the case of these two brothers would agree that what we’re really looking at is a family dynamics issue, not a simple corporate structure problem.

If the two employees were not related, maybe a structural solution would suffice, but maybe not.  We could certainly expect that maybe one of the employees would be let go or reassigned in such a case.

But here it seems to be truly a question of their relationship as members of the same family.

…. with Family Dynamics Solutions

So if we have a family dynamics problem, we should be looking at a family dynamics based solution.

I recognize that most families and even most of their advisors typically hate to admit this, because this brings them into uncomfortable territory.

My answer to them is that it is already uncomfortable, and admitting what is there is the first step to being able to work through it.

A real solution hinges on the ability of the siblings to get along together after their parents are gone, so it’s better to start working on that and testing it now, not later.

If it turns out to be impossible, better to know that now, and begin to take appropriate action.

See also: FamBiz Conflict In Pieces for the Sake of Peace