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Family Businesses in the Age of Anxiety

By Bernard Kliska, Ph.D.

There’s plenty for family businesses to be anxious about these days. But the truth is, during anxious and uncertain times, family businesses are better situated than most other businesses not only to survive, but to grow and prosper.

Since September 11 anxiety among Americans has risen sharply. Prescriptions across the country for tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medications have risen about nine percent. The stock market and consumer confidence index have been bouncing as if they’re on a bungee cord. Concerns about the economy, accounting practices and enormous bankruptcies have made business owners question their financial picture, particularly since their banks, creditors, suppliers and friends are asking questions they haven’t asked before. Anxiety is contagious.

In my work with family businesses, I’ve certainly seen an increase in anxiety. The issues may be the same, but the rampant anxiety puts those issues in an entirely different context and adds a risky new element to working through them. During anxious times, even normal or inevitable changes become supercharged with anxiety.

Anxiety usually affects decision-making in one of two ways, both of which are ill-advised. People become glued to the spot, afraid to make major decisions or moves. Perhaps on the theory that anything is better than sitting in a hot spot, they succumb to their panic and make hasty, reckless decisions. People are either spending far too much time trembling on the brink, or wanting to charge forward like the doomed Light Brigade.

Families who used to worry about transitioning from one generation to the next aren’t just worrying about how to gracefully ease the founders out or how to choose the new successors without touching off battles and bruising egos. Some families want to act more precipitously than they might have done before September 11. The Old Man has to go now, before things get worse. Other companies clearly needing to change want to put their succession plans on hold. Now is not the time to be rocking the boat, they say; if the boat is taking on more water, we can all just bail a little faster for a while.

It’s not just succession issues that have become charged with anxiety. Businesses that find themselves entering a new stage in their natural development aren’t asking the kind of positive, confident questions that go along with the excitement of growth. Instead of asking what they need to do, or how they can do it, people are asking whether they should do anything at all. “Is this really the time to make any changes?” one person asked me. “Is there any other good choice?” I responded. Others want to leap forward on a wing and a prayer. “We’ve got to do something!” they say.

A good place to begin, I remind them, is with some calm reflection.

Recently, I’ve found it useful to modify my strategies for helping businesses make strategic changes. Instead of driving straight for concrete issues, as I’ve always done, now I take some time to name the beast that’s stalking the boardroom. “Theses feel like anxious times,” I say, “and many businesses are having more difficulty making sound decisions and carrying them through.

Acknowledging today’s unique business and social environment seems important. It helps people see their anxiety as something normal. It puts their anxiety in the proper place-as something that may make them more hesitant or reckless about making the necessary decisions, but not as something that directly related to what’s really happening in their business. We may not be able to destroy the beast, but we can certainly put it in its cage where all it can do is occasionally rattle the bars and put on a distracting but harmless show.

Family businesses cope best by replacing their anxiety with a renewed sense of mission. Family businesses are better situated than other companies to grow during uncertain and anxious times. Instead of having stockbrokers and Wall Street analysts second-guessing, giving contradictory advice and worrying them into paralysis or recklessness, family businesses are ultimately answerable to their own internal, long-term support system. Personally and professionally, families have developed long-standing ways of supporting one another and sticking together, a reliable system that will continue to serve them well. If the anxiety seems too far out of proportion to the issue at hand, I ask them how they have supported each other in the past when things were scary or uncertain. What are the reassuring strengths, who has them, and how can they be utilized now?

Family businesses have other qualities as well that will help them not just stay afloat but move ahead through uncertain times. By their nature, they are more entrepreneurial and more flexible. They also have a deeper reservoir of loyalty to draw upon, not just from each other but also from their employees. Less prone to lay people off and more willing to hold onto employees longer, family businesses often have a more motivated workforce.

I try to replace their anxiety with a renewed sense of mission. Family businesses are more than ever the backbone of the economy. September 11 didn’t just produce anxiety. There’s also been an upsurge of patriotism in our country. As the backbone of our economy, family businesses will be among those who lead the way out of fear.

 

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