Taming the Black Sheep

When parents are not united in their words and actions, display conflicting messages and continue to tolerate the black sheep family member’s damaging actions, Prof. Eddelston correctly painted two scenarios:

  • The black sheep or “Fredo” will either withdraw from the family business and/or;
  • Lash out with selfish behaviors in an effort to gain compensation for their circumstances

Another aggravating scenario that will further add strain to the family is the tendency of the children to pit parents against each other.

On one hand, a parent, usually the mother, has the natural tendency to coddle underperforming family members by way of covertly supporting the children (financial and advice) often against the wishes of the father who in most cases is the disciplinarian.

Unknowingly, the actions of the coddling parent (rewarding/reinforcing bad behavior) will eventually lead to more problems effectively undermining an already strained relationship among family members.

On the other hand, the children who have communication issues with the stricter parent will gravitate to the coddling parent resulting in real conflict and constant clashes between parents and the children.

To mitigate the tension, the family will “sweep the issues under the rug”, ignore the tension and for most family members, would rather just “suffer in silence.”

This unstable “ceasefire” will allow a semblance of numbing peace but it will only be temporary. When a sensitive topic is raised and a raw nerve is touched, expect an avalanche of problems to come out in the open and a new round of discord is activated.

With the “elephant in the room” becoming so big but deliberately ignored, stress levels will continue to surge and one trigger, just one, can discharge another round of infighting. This event, if left unresolved, becomes a vicious cycle that consumes and zaps the energy of every family member.

At this juncture, the family is in a state of helplessness and on the brink of finally “throwing in the towel.” When left unresolved, this negative energy spills over to the business.

Unfortunately, when the parents are already old or are gone, you can expect the children (and in-laws) to slug it out, employing higher levels of relationship conflict. With their newly inherited ownership rights, the problems are compounded and another bruising conflict awaits the siblings. This highly charged situation becomes a precursor for family members to sell out and marks the beginning of the end of the family business.

Do you want to have a united and harmonious family? Do you want family members to become responsible owners and stewards? Eddelston offers some advice in dealing with black sheep and underperforming family members.

First, confront the child, either one-on-one or through an experienced advisor. Sometimes children do not realize the harm they bring to the family and the business so articulating the family’s clear position is important. Show that the bad behavior has major consequences and expulsion, suspension or demotion are options available.

Second, give the child another job – one that better suits his/her interests and experience. Sometimes an otherwise “good” family member can seem like a black sheep because the person is ill-suited to the industry and business.

Third, consider firing or buying out the child’s shares. Unfortunately, in reality, there are also situations when firing him/her is not practical since the person does not have career options and needs to provide for a family.

You are not alone. Having a black sheep family member is universal. Initiating these actions are unpleasant but in the end you just have to do what is best for the family and the business.

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