Ralph, a self-made man, grew up believing in his generation’s values of sacrifice and hard work, and he devoted the majority of his daily life to the family’s wholesale liquor business. Eventually his children, Bill, Sally, and John, joined the business. John, the youngest, often clashed with his two siblings. John believed that the road to success lay not in his working the same kinds of hours as his father and siblings, but in making management and operational changes that would permit them all some more personal time. From the perspective of the family’s values of long hours and hard work, John seemed lazy, impatient and often came across as brash and assertive.
Trying to avoid confrontation, Ralph sidestepped discussions and arguments. He rarely talked to John about goals, job responsibilities, or the industry in general. Ralph’s retreat made John even more assertive and impatient. Following their father’s example, Bill and Sally also began avoiding John, and so he and his ideas received no support or feedback. As John’s isolation increased, he became more irritable, cynical and depressed. Finally he decided to leave the business and cut off all relationships with the family.
When we are called in to try to resolve such situations, we often hear that the family has “no idea” why someone decided to cut himself off from the family. For those who remain in the family—the departure of the family member often feels sudden or “out of the blue”—they genuinely did not see it coming. Unfortunately, this typical response is further evidence that we are working with a family where communication has been deteriorating for a long time and where dissension has not been addressed. In our experience the surprised reaction of the extended family often adds to the anger and frustration of the family member who has cut off, as it just reinforces to them that no one was listening or understood what they said, or that their views or needs were simply not equally valued. A cutoff is a tragedy for both the family and the business, and it is often avoidable.
These three keys will help avoid a family cutoff:
Be aware of characteristics and perspectives of people who are more likely to cut themselves off. Often, these family members have a heightened sense of being different, misunderstood, unappreciated and humiliated. They feel their needs are not adequately valued in the family. They come to feel that no matter which way they turn, their road is blocked. Paradoxically, these feelings can be intensified by two opposite ways of being treated: they can feel ignored (no one listens to them) or suffocated (endless demands are put on them by others in the family, preventing them from attending to their own needs). Either way, resentment builds and they begin keeping count of all the times they are excluded or squelched. Finally, the only way they feel they can assert themselves is to cut themselves off from the family.
Celebrate their differences. Too often we have a tendency to reward conformity to family styles and values, and to disparage or shun those who deviate. We like to remind family members that if they look deeply enough, they will usually find that every style has its strengths and advantages. If John is impatient, it helps to note the energy embedded in that impatience, and to search for ways to help him use it. If family members disagree on the way to reach a goal, they may still agree on the ultimate goal. And even disagreement on the ultimate goal may create an opportunity for everyone to re-examine the unquestioned goals that have been automatically in place. Such useful discussions are much more likely to occur because someone is different.
Address simmering discontents before they boil. Frequent meaningful communication is essential to every family business. Often, our tendency is to avoid communication when there is discontent, but this is precisely when communication needs to intensify. And communication must be two-way. Any communication that does not allow the discontented person to talk and to feel that he or she is genuinely listened to will only add more fuel to the fire. Don’t squelch debate and discussion because you are afraid it will reveal the areas of disagreement—accept that you will not agree on all things, but that if the process for arriving at a solution feels fair, and everyone gets a chance to be legitimately heard and respected, most families will be able to move forward from this disagreement in a healthy manner. On the other hand, if a family member is excluded from the decision-making process for any reason, mistrust and anger can really take root, making radical outcomes like a cut-off that much more likely.
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, cutoffs occur. In those cases, it is important to keep the door open. People may or may not return to the business, but this does not mean they must leave the family. Everyone is always better off when reconciliation and healing occur. Two steps, on the part of the remaining business members and the person who has cut himself off, can promote this.
Cutoffs may be regrettable but need not be angry. Silence and invisibility are the enemies of family cohesion, and so it is important to acknowledge what happened and why, without rancor. The minute a family member leaves, the time for recriminations and anger must end. Instead of justifying their own positions, each side should acknowledge the other’s position and the other’s feelings. Be objective or regretful, not accusatory. Engage the services of a neutral and trained facilitator to help you undertake this mutual acknowledgement process, as it may be very difficult to do on your own once a cut-off has occurred because the levels of trust are so weak.
Insist on continuing the connection. People should keep in touch. One cutoff person who moved out of state made it a point to send a monthly postcard, which the family prominently posted, and they let him know the postcard was in everyone’s sight every day. Today, people are more likely to e-mail. When appropriate, we recommend printing and posting the e-mail, so that it feels more tangible and less disposable. If one side refuses to communicate, the other side should continue communicating in a way that respects boundaries, even if there is no response.
Sometimes we cannot control whether things end. But we can have considerably more control over how things end. By following these rules, resilient, healthy families who recognize the value and gift of family cohesiveness can avoid cutoffs or at least turn a family member’s exit from a bitter cutoff into a new family chapter.