Family Business: Managing emotions in a family business

This article first appeared in Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 28, 2022 - March 06, 2022.
Family Business: Managing emotions in a family business
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Emotions are what make us human. On the one hand, we have happy and loving emotions that strengthen the connection among family members, leading to more coherence in managing a family business. On the other hand, anger and resentment among family members, if not addressed, can be catastrophic to a family business. 

Below are some scenarios and ways to manage them:

Scenario 1 

Philip and Peggy have devoted themselves to the family business founded by their father because of their love for him and for the sake of family unity. Despite the cohesion between the siblings on the division of their roles in operations, finance and strategy, their unhappiness against each other has been growing stronger. Although Philip is confident in his ability to succeed their father, he is insecure as Peggy is more educated and an experienced consultant. He feels that his younger sister’s workload is lighter as she handles finance and strategy, while his work in the daily operations requires more effort.

Peggy feels that she has been unjustly treated, as she had to give up her senior role and high pay in a prestigious consulting firm yet her father favours Philip who contributes less but receives more pay than her. What makes matters worse is the fact that Philip is very temperamental and always feels the need to act as the boss and boss her around at work. He often shouts at her, using demeaning words. Peggy feels drained as she constantly needs to reel in her emotions when facing her brother at work, and just wants to leave the family business. 

Scenario 2 

Ben and Anna founded a chemical trading business together as copreneurs 10 years ago. The couple works perfectly together, as charismatic Ben handles customers and suppliers while detail-oriented Anna handles the back end of the business, overseeing finance, operations and human resources. The family business is now transitioning from a small business into a medium-scale one, and their teenage children have also started to become involved in the operations to learn more about the business.

Lately, Anna has suspected her husband of cheating on her with one of their suppliers after a friend sent her pictures of Ben cuddling a beautiful young woman in a bar. They have been having huge fights. “The business would not be where it is now without me sacrificing my prime years working at the back end instead of dressing up and going out,” Anna rages. In an attempt to retaliate and “control” her husband, she has instructed the company’s staff to cut down his entertainment budget, as well as not approve all his expense claims. This has resulted in a backlog in paperwork, and their employees and the couple’s children are caught in between.

Importance of emotional awareness

It is human to feel. As social beings, our emotions play an important function in helping us to navigate the terrain of human relationships. From childhood to adulthood, we use our emotions to guide us on how to behave appropriately in social situations. We also learn how to manage upsetting emotions to produce positive outcomes, for example, to get rewards through good behaviour and communication rather than crying and complaining.

When our emotions are poorly handled, logical thinking is compromised, even without our awareness. We make bad decisions, and then we justify it with poor reasoning, often resulting in damaged interpersonal relationships. As a mastery of colour is needed to make good paintings, a mastery of emotions is needed to manage our relationships well.

Managing emotions and being careful with words

The key to holding difficult conversations in a family business is to ensure the presence of safety and respect for one another. When there are unresolved issues or unclarified differences in expectations, negative emotions and wrongful assumptions can cause conversations to break down. The ability to manage negative emotions while having difficult conversations can allow family members to really listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings without jumping to conclusions. While this may be easier said than done for some families, it can be learned if there is a willingness to try.

The first step to managing emotions is to recognise them. Emotions are very much body-based experiences. Learning how to be more emotionally self-aware requires us to be in touch with bodily sensations. Learn to connect the body with various emotional states. For example, anger is often felt as tightened fists and clenched jaws, ready for an attack response; and fear is often felt as a jittery, heart-palpitating sensation, making one ready to run away or escape. Linking our bodies to our emotions can help us to be clearer about what we are feeling and identify the deeper issues that are troubling us.

The second step to managing emotions is to be authentic and to examine them. Suppressing emotions may work when the upsetting emotions are temporary, and one has to simply endure them in order to get something done, for example making a difficult announcement to stakeholders. However, long-term upsetting emotions need to be embraced and examined. By doing so, we are saying to ourselves that we are willing to listen and pay attention to what we need on a deeper level — to be true to ourselves. Facing our emotions authentically can help us calm down the nervous system, and thereby engage our reasoning capacity more effectively.

When we are able to manage our emotions well, we can then engage in productive conversations with family members: we can hold back any negative reactions and stay present to actively listen to what the other person is saying; we can clarify what we are hearing so that wrong assumptions can be corrected; and we can also express our deeper expectations among family members.

Equally important to managing emotions is the ability to use respectful words. In families that are used to communicating with hurtful words that label another person (for example, “stupid” or “useless”), or “blaming” words that make others feel defensive (“it’s your fault,” “grow up”, “don’t be overly sensitive”), safety is no longer present. Families need to learn a new language that can inspire a sense of respect and love for each other. Instead of labelling, talk about behaviour that can be corrected; instead of blaming, point out how the situation makes you feel, so that family members understand the impact of their actions on you.

Seeking professional help 

One route to seeking professional help for gridlocked emotions in family firms is to find a mediator or a family therapist. The gridlock is often the result of a build-up of negative interactions over many years. A good mediator or therapist will work with the content of the problem (for example, who owns more shares or goodwill in the asset) but more importantly, will help the family to identify the emotional gridlock and to disentangle it. For example, in Scenario 1, rather than just dealing with Peggy’s desire to leave the family business, the mediator will help Phillip to talk about his sense of insecurity and Peggy to process her hurt from the unfair treatment, and then to repair the siblings’ relationship. In Scenario 2, the problem is not only about the entertainment budget and expense claims not being approved, but the underlying emotional issue is a betrayal of trust. Both husband and wife would need a lot of conversation and time with a marriage therapist to explore and restore that trust.

Conclusion

Although emotions can create problems, they are not bad in themselves. Emotions allow us to feel joy, happiness, love and deep connection in a family. Ignoring emotions may work temporarily to calm things down but if there is an ongoing pattern, we need to address what is going on because emotions are the signals that tell us what is really important for us.


Dr Johnben Loy is the founder and clinical director of Rekindle Centre for Systemic Therapy and also a certified forum facilitator for the Young Presidents’ Organization, providing personal/relationship coaching for business leaders, specialising in family business. Dr Feranita is a senior lecturer at Taylor’s Business School’s Faculty of Business and Law.

This article is a collaboration between Family Business Network (FBN) Asia and Taylor’s University. FBN Asia, a regional chapter of FBN International, which represents family businesses in 65 countries across five continents, offers opportunities for stakeholders of the family business to learn, thrive and transform across generations to build a sustainable future.