It is universally acknowledged that the close relationships between family members can define the success of family businesses or lead to their downfall. Conflict is more likely between family members than professional associates – it’s human nature. At the same time however, the proximity of family also means a higher potential for success when communication, unity and identity are considered.

Despite the prevalence of family businesses, there has been little research into the sociopsychological dynamics that shape the way they operate. To remedy this, Dr Esra Memili decided to focus her theoretical research on role-conflict and role-duality within the context of family firms. Her work is an essential resource for academics and for businesses that wish to avoid the pitfalls that result from role-conflict.

Tharawat Magazine sat down with Dr Memili to discuss her findings, their practical applications and healthy ways in which to define the roles and identities of each member of a business family.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Role-Conflict in the Family Business
Image courtesy of Dr. Esra Memili

What inspired your work on role-conflict within family businesses?

Very early on in my doctoral studies at Mississippi State University, I was inspired by Jim Chrisman’s work on family firms and Franz Kellermanns’ research on different types of conflict within the context of family business. Their work coupled with my own experiences in family firm practice led me to take a closer look at the literature. I was surprised to find an academic vacuum – the gap between theory and practice on role-conflict was immediately evident to me. Family firms struggle with this issue and the situation is made worse by the lack of reference material. I decided to make it my focus and published a theoretical article with my co-authors in 2014 at the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology titled: “Role Conflicts of Family Members in Family Firms.”

Can you define role-conflict and role-duality for us?

Role-conflict occurs when expectations associated with different roles are incompatible. Fulfilling the demands of one of our roles might undermine or challenge the second role. Additionally, the tension of one role can extend into the other to further exacerbate things. For instance, siblings may hold supervisor and subordinate positions in the family business. The sibling with a lower position may expect the same informal treatment from their brother or sister at work as they expect at home. This may come off as unprofessional, which can be problematic, especially if the family business involves non-family members as well. They might see this conflict and lose confidence in the business.

Dual roles are intrinsic to family business – family roles and business roles are inevitably different, though they can be related. This role-duality often causes role-conflict. For example, a father owns a business and employs other family members. In this situation, it’s possible that parental expectations or favouritism will diminish his objectivity as a manager or vice versa. This interference causes role-conflict.

SPECIAL FEATURES: Role-Conflict in the Family Business
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Why does this void in academic research on role-conflict within family businesses exist?

Although family firms are one of the oldest forms of enterprise in history, research that delineates non-family firms from family firms is relatively new. That said, the sociopsychological dynamics affecting members’ intentions and behaviours, such as role-conflict, have been getting a lot more attention lately. The academic community is only just discovering the importance of these mechanisms and how they pertain to business practices. It’s an exciting field – there is still so much to explore.

For researchers, data on sociopsychological dynamics is difficult to find and fully understanding this issue will require a lot more study. That said, academic conferences are expanding networks and increasing the potential for collaboration. Working together is the only way to foster progress and advance for our field as a whole.

What have you found out and were you surprised by your findings?

In our theoretical development efforts, we built a conceptual model of role-conflict in family firms, which can affect firm performance negatively. We found that although family firms may be more prone to role-conflict caused by the duality of roles, idiosyncrasies that are prevalent in family businesses like reciprocal altruism (taking action for mutual benefit) can potentially mitigate the negative impact. Positive perceptions, such as collective efficacy (shared belief in family capabilities to attain business goals) can strengthen this relationship. An example would be: a parent mentors their offspring with the intent of them taking a leadership role in the family business. Their son or daughter, in return, puts in effort to learn and develop. Belief in the family as whole can help cope with both financial and non-financial challenges such as role-conflict.

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How can families avoid role-conflict?

Families can avoid role-conflict by maintaining clearly defined roles. Members should ask themselves, is my position in the family compatible with my role in the business? Does one role have the potential to impact my performance in the other negatively? Communication is key and effective stewardship behaviours like trust and participation go a long way in making sure role conflict doesn’t become a problem.


SPECIAL FEATURES: Role-Conflict in the Family Business
Image via GettyImages

How does role-conflict impact family businessesstrong>

I’ll start by reiterating that family firms are always at greater risk of role-conflict than their non-family counterparts because of inherent role-duality. Role-conflict that does occur is often more complex – family members regularly interact at home and at work. To add to this, family business members generally have a longer tenure than their non-family business colleagues, so role-conflict is potentially detrimental for a much longer term.

Role-conflict is often linked to low performance. It can interfere with work because the focus often shifts to coping with the conflict and mitigating the other consequences it might have. This may be particularly problematic in small to medium-sized family firms where there is a heavy reliance on the contributions of family members. If family members involved in the business cannot resolve or manage their role-conflict, they are unlikely to meet their goals.

How can family members define their identity in a healthy way within the greater context of the identity of the family business?

We can identify with organisations and businesses when there is an overlap between our identity and the identity of the firm. In a family business, identity can be successfully developed by transferring norms and values from one generation to the next, strengthening family bonds and promoting reciprocity. When individual interests align with the interests of the family firm, family business members tend to hold business objectives above their personal goals. That said, family members that see themselves as extensions of the family business can preserve their identity while maintaining continuity by developing a unique sense of utility and self-enhancement. A family business member with a strong sense of family firm identification is motivated to ensure the business’s continued success because it’s both individually rewarding and beneficial to the company as a whole. For instance, a family business member with a keen interest in innovation can enhance the firm’s reputation while at the same time advancing their own career. Individual talents that benefit the family business should be celebrated. These practices reinforce family firm identification in the long-run and facilitate sustained transgenerational successes.