Don’t Let the Past Ruin the Future of Your Family Business


The majority of healthy and functioning family businesses can be described as “good-enough families” – families that 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. These families:

  • Negotiate conflict: they work it out
  • Deal with the present
  • Use the family resources to strengthen themselves
  • Know what is important to them and try to live accordingly
  • Are dynamic, interesting and rooted in their shared cultural values

In contrast, more conflicted families:

  • Don’t resolve conflict
  • Attack and alienate each other
  • Are not focused on important things in the business and family
  • Are depleted: they weaken themselves by all of the above
  • Are shackled to the past

What about you and your family?

You may find that this discussion about family ghosts strikes a chord with you. That is to be expected. Your family is unique, with its own communication style, culture and history. You might find yourself thinking about the issues in your own family.

Oftimes, just “shining the flashlight” into the shadows brings something to light that needs to be faced. Most families are not extreme, i.e. they tend to get along, be kind to one another and try to make good decisions. The stresses, pushes and pulls of life can make all of that more difficult. Illuminating the shadows can foster open, honest dialogue both about family and business issues.

The more aware we are of ourselves as individuals and as a family, the more likely we will be to find a way to work things out, without creating fractures in the family.

In light of our discussion about family secrets and ghosts, here are some suggestions for “aiming your flashlight.”

1. Watch out for the “deadly trio”:

The deadly trio consists of:

  • Unhealthy, destructive behaviors
  • A culture of entitlement
  • The lack of value creation, coupled with incompetence, laziness, and lack of commitment in the family

This trio is deadly because it can result in:

  • Splits and fractures in the family, spilling over into the business
  • Deep-seated and decades-long resentments, i.e. bad blood
  • Living in the past, with a resulting inability to attend to the real business challenges and family issues
  • Lack of both focus and strategic thinking, resulting in poor business decisions

Attempting to resolve conflicts through legal and financial modes and tactics, rather than negotiation and commitment to “working it out”.

2. Seek advice and guidance

We all can benefit from getting another perspective. Seek out trusted colleagues and peers to “bounce things off of.”

3. Take a look at yourself and your own particular dynamics.

What are the “hot buttons” in the family? What is it that creates dissension, disharmony and bad feeling in your family?

4. The family is a team.

Remember that you are “all in it together”.

5. Don’t blame yourself or anyone else.

Focus on solutions, not blame.

6. Remember that the past is embedded in and living in the present.

Ghosts, secrets and memories influence the roles family members play and their dynamics with each other. Pay attention to your own intuition and feelings about particular situations. A culture of emotional abuse in the past can spill over into the present. For example, how many of us say, “I don’t want to be like ________?”

A final note

This introduction to the idea of the “ghost in the room” is not new. When things seem to get bogged down and people start losing hope of resolution, it is time to start thinking, “What is really going on here?”