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Sibling Teams: Understanding the Emotional Problems

By John L. Ward, Ph.D. and Craig Aronoff, Ph.D.

A number of major emotional issues unique to brothers and sisters will deeply affect how they work together as a team. Understanding those issues and realizing that every sibling partnership is affected by all or most of them will help family members become more objective, more knowledgeable, and even more compassionate in dealing with them. Increased awareness helps to empower the sibling team. Let's explore the issues:

  • The controlling behavior of entrepreneurial parents. Many entrepreneurs are high controllers. Combining an entrepreneur's tendency toward control with normal parental feelings can produce parents who want to govern the attitudes, the values, the opinions, the dress--in short, the behavior--of offspring, not just while they are children but throughout life. The business itself can feed the need to control. For example, a business-owning family can be highly visible in the community, giving parents concern about how the things their children do might reflect on the business.
  • The effect of parents behavior on the development of children's skills for success. While they usually don't mean to, parents may adopt behavior that precludes the development of the siblings as a team. For example, instead of providing opportunities to learn the skills of shared decision-making, parents may make all decisions themselves. Instead of helping the next generation learn to resolve conflict, they may suppress conflict. Instead of encouraging the development of communication skills within this next generation, they create a system in which each parent communicates individually with each child. Instead of allowing learning from failures, they try to protect their children from mistakes. That creates massive pressures on members of the next generation not to fail.
  • Sibling rivalry. As adults trying to work as a unit in business, members of the next generation need to see each other in new ways--even learning to know each other all over again. As individuals, each sibling consciously may have to strive for less dependence on parental approval to minimize the rivalry felt toward brothers and sisters. This situation can be remedied by siblings' respect becoming more important than parents' approval.
  • Adopting your parent's baby. (How hard it is for them to give it up!) It is often said that a business is the parents' other child. They created it, just as they created their human children, and their feelings for it are profound, just as their feelings for their real children are profound.
  • The age spread of the siblings. Those who are older are usually the first to enter the business and get a running start. An individual with a running start gains tremendous advantages in a situation where the family is trying to develop an equal team. And, because they love their children equally, parents may champion and support the underdog--the younger sibling, who hasn't had a chance yet or who hasn't had as much time in the business. If the age spread is, say, eight years, at one end of the spectrum you have a 34-year-old who feels ready to begin leading the business and at the other end, a 26-year-old who is just getting started. At the same time, the family is already at a stage where decisions must be made about leadership succession, who gets the voting stock, and other major issues. It is important to look at how the difference in ages affects the team and to find ways to compensate for various perspectives, levels of maturity, and extent of experience or knowledge.
  • Mother's tendency to want to save the family. Often, a mother's desire to preserve the family is so strong that she may become involved to the point of moderating or manipulating any news that she picks up about disagreements or disputes in the business. Siblings need to be aware that this is a common pattern and to address it sensitively.
  • The in-law effect. In the second generation, for the first time, outsiders, in the form of spouses, are introduced into the family and, by extension, into the family business. Unless care is taken, all sorts of negative emotions can surface: fear, mistrust, suspicion, envy. But, with the commitment of siblings and parents, the in-law effect is manageable.
  • The challenge of diversity within the sibling group. Even though siblings have the same parents and grew up in the same house, each is likely to be very different, with different views and abilities. Sally may be visual; Sam, verbal. Esther may be extroverted; Herb, analytical. Differences should be valued because they strengthen a team and can produce better decisions. But, because differences can also create friction, they may be a weakness. Siblings need to acknowledge that they hear, think, decide, and communicate differently. They also need to develop skills to deal with their differences--communications skills, listening skills, empathy, and appreciation for differences. Sometimes it may help to remember the United States' motto: e pluribus unum--out of many, one.

Reprinted with permission of the authors from Making Sibling Teams Work: The Next Generation. ©1997, Family Enterprise Publishers.

 

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