Stress and Conflict Reveals what one Sibling Really Values

I know of a family owned business whose three owners – all siblings – are in their late sixties. They present themselves to the outside world and to themselves as a tight-knight, loving family.

Their business is in crisis. For years, they have lacked a true leader to guide their business. Their father was more of an angry, my-way-or-the-highway drill sergeant, but he wasn’t a leader, so they didn’t learn any leadership skills from him. Plus, they have lacked any serious accounting talent. Their bookkeeper has done her best, but it’s clear that their lack of adequate leadership and accounting has resulted in their business being on the brink of bankruptcy.

I’m part of a team that was brought in to help them turn-around their business. When they started implementing our recommendations, significant stress and hidden conflict surfaced first on how they managed finances and then on what roles each sibling was fulfilling in the business.

It didn’t help that one of the extended family members had loaned the business a significant sum of money to keep it going and now was facing the prospect that he might not be paid in the time frame he was requesting. He and his wife (one of the owners) were nice as long as they thought they would be paid back within an artificial time-frame that he had arbitrarily set. But when it became apparent that his timeframe wasn’t going to be met, he threw a temper tantrum, stormed out of the office and never returned.

His wife, one of the owners, suddenly cut off all family communication. She even dis-invited her two siblings to a significant family celebration for her. When stress was low – before the recommendations were implemented – she would say that she’d like to be paid back, but that she knew it would take time. She was accommodating and nice. But when the stress became high, she became a different person. She and her husband were so angry that they moved out-of-state – permanently.

And there we had it: the truth. The truth was that they were willing to sacrifice family relationships – permanently – over money. Money was more important than family.

In my experience, when families tell me how loving and tight-knit they are, I usually wonder who’s not being honest with themselves. It’s not that tight-knit families don’t exist – they do. But those that are tight-knit rarely have a need to tell others how tight-knit they are. They just do it without thinking and you can see it in their interactions. It never occurs to them to tell others they are tight-knit because they don’t know of another way of living.

We usually find out who is not being honest with themselves when the really tough parts of a business turn-around are placed squarely on the shoulders of the family/business owners. Under stress, I’m able to see and hear the real truth of how solid and stable the relationships are within the ownership group. Moreover, I hear the real truth of what individual owners are really thinking.

On a global scale, here is what you can look for when stress increases in a family business.

Money is often more important to people than family or business relationships. I’ve seen this born out in a number of situations, both when I owned my own therapy practice and now as an advisor to family owned businesses. It’s sad, but true. Most people value money more than most other things and people in life. So they do things like cutting off and threatening to move to another state. Money becomes more important than family.

Our values are forced to the surface when stress hits our lives. I’ve seen people live out their stated values under stress. For example, I’ve seen people who are financially stressed still give to others because they really do value giving and philanthropy. The stress didn’t surface hidden values. But I’ve also seen people who valued their relationships jettison them at the first hint that their wealth was being injured through those relationships. Unfortunately for this ownership group, one of the owners values money more than her family relationships. This will be a truth the other two owners will need to keep in mind as they move forward.

Many justify otherwise unacceptable behavior because money is involved and “you just don’t mess with my money”. The sister who dis-invited her siblings to her celebration would have never thought to have done this under normal circumstances. But when she faced the (perceived) prospect of not being paid within the arbitrary time-table set by her husband, she chose to show her anger by cutting off from her family – hence the other owners in her business. This is clearly unacceptable behavior, but because money is involved, her behavior is somehow justified – at least in her and her husband’s mind.

Unfortunately, we often don’t see what people really value until they are under significant stress. This can be highly enlightening (and perhaps disheartening) when it is a family member. But if you agree with one of my undeniable truths of business ownership: “the truth is never the problem”, then you’ll come to see that learning the truth can only help you in your relationships and business ownership as you move forward, even if you learn that the truth is ugly and you had to learn it under stressful circumstances.

Bill English, MA, LP, MDiv is a family business advisor with the Platinum Group in Minnetonka, Minnesota. He assists families with conflict resolution and positive successions of their business as well as performing interim CEO work for family businesses in transition. You can contact Bill at bill. english @ or call 952-259-3217.