Ghosts and Secrets that Haunt Your Family Enterprise

In a family business, honesty and trust are paramount. The reality is, however, that most families have secrets of some sort. Sometimes they are the ghosts of lost relatives, terrible tragedies, losses or abuses of one sort or another. These “hauntings” make themselves known in un-ending family conflict, lost riches and the decline of the family business. In this article, we explore what these ghosts are, how they are manifest and what we might do as members and leaders of families to free ourselves from what has haunted us, so we may move on as a family and as a business.

Each family has its own colourful and compelling history. Buried deep in that history, many times, are family secrets, the “ghosts of the past”. These ghosts, be they the long-shadow of the founder, lost, disinherited or forgotten members of the family or long-decayed family values and culture, have unseen effects on the family system. These are powerful, deeply-rooted influences on enterprising families.

Ghosts: Something from the past, i.e. dead relatives, stories, emotions, family secrets, or memories that lives on in the present. Some of the ghosts and secrets in families are: Unacknowledged, unspoken secrets; Bankruptcy, loss of fortune; Substance abuse and mental illness; Sexual, physical and emotional abuse; Past family lawsuits; Cheating and divorce; Gender inequality; Secrets regarding the children; Deaths and losses; Decline of the senior generation

Families deal with these ghosts in their own particular, unique way. Some families do well; others do not. Most are “good-enough”. Good-enough families have their own ways of dealing with conflict, bad feeling, disappointment, loss and heartache. They are robust and resilient in how they treat each other. They have problems and issues, yes, but they find ways to resolve them, move on and remain connected to each other as a family. They will always find a way to celebrate good times together. They care about each other, support each other when times are tough and are connected to each other. They are committed to working things out, because they want the family to stay together. They are good-enough. They are not ruled by ghosts and secrets.

There are four characteristics to a good-enough family:

1. Connections

Beside the blood ties of each family member to the other, there are the emotional ties. The emotional ties are the “glue” of the family. Despite inevitable conflicts and strains, good-enough families weather the storms and maintain relationships. The strong connections of family members to each other, to the business, and to all the generations of the family foster stability and harmony in the family and in the business.

2. Conflicts

How well or poorly the family members negotiate their conflicts inevitably will affect how they negotiate conflicts in the business. If they understand each other, and are willing to find common ground, they will have achieved a milestone, which will serve them well on the business side. Good-enough families do all of this.

3. Culture

All families share a unique culture in how they interact with each other, how they share their special family stories and how they connect to society. Good-enough families have a strong family culture. They are connected to the family history; they are proud of their family. The business culture reflects the family culture.

4. Transitions

Periods of transition test the durability of the family member’s connection to each other, their ability to negotiate conflicts and their culture as a family. Good-enough families think about and plan for transitions; they deal with the transitions as best they can that they cannot foresee, e.g. the death of a family member or a downturn in the business. Good-enough families don’t blow up or turn on each other. They move ahead.

Ghosts and secrets can destroy families and their businesses. What kind of family do you have?