Two brothers, both executives of a large furniture company, wanted to take out a considerable loan to expand the company.  Absolutely not, said the CEO, who was also their father.  That disagreement turned into several months of stalemate and an increasingly acrimonious relationship between the brothers and their father.  By the time they finally called in a consultant, the argument had progressed from a difference over a business plan into a fight about respect.

“They have no respect for my decisions,” the father complained.

“He refuses to acknowledge that we’re capable of making major decisions for the business,” the sons said.

The most common complaint I hear about the issue of respect comes from senior executives, especially family business founders, who turn business disagreements with their sons and daughters into a battle about their offspring not respecting them.  Sometimes it is not even the absence of respect that switches business discussions onto the personal track; a perceived lack of respect can be just as damaging.  Lack of respect, real or perceived, is probably the key factor in the breakdown of family business relationships; without real and demonstrated respect, few family business relationships are long term or sustainable.

Although founders most frequently complain about lack of respect, offspring also do it.  I often remind families that if respect doesn’t flow in both directions, it quickly dries up.  Founders focus so much on the lack of respect from their children that they don’t see that they haven’t respected their children enough and are in effect getting hit with their own boomerang of disrespect.  On the other hand, children focus so much on the founders not listening to them that they fail to see how their own lack of respect has calcified their parents’ resistance to hearing anything they have to say.

The founder/offspring relationship is not the only one in family business that benefits from respect.  Siblings also suffer from the impact of a perceived lack of respect, particularly if some siblings are involved in the business and others are not.  Often, those in the business feel that their non-employed siblings don’t respect their contribution to the business.  Family members employed in the business feel that they are working for the good of the family and others are benefiting from their hard work.  On the other side, siblings not in the business feel that they miss out on the rewards provided by the business—salary, recognition and other perks.  The same prescription for engendering respect applies in the sibling relationship.

What is respect?  Respect is a little like love; everyone thinks they know what it means, but there are many definitions, most of them private, and when one person doesn’t know the other’s definition, trouble usually results.  So it’s important for each person to define for the other—as well as for themselves—which behaviors will help them feel respected.  This helps to move the issue of respect from complaining, hurt feelings, accusations, anger, and arguing toward negotiation.

 “I feel I’m respected when you do what I want,” a founder may say.

“You want me to do what you want every time?” the child may respond.  “Would you really respect me if I did exactly what you wanted every time?  Can we find some way in which we can both earn respect?”

When people know that their feelings, thoughts, needs, ideas, wishes, and preferences are heard and taken into genuine consideration, they generally feel respected.  Notice I say genuine consideration.  Respect requires more than lip service or empty actions.  This is why I advise people not to fake respect but to cultivate their capacity for feeling it.  When the feeling of respect is there, the behavior will naturally follow.

Learning to respect.  Senior generations often believe that respect can be demanded or forced.  But demands and coercion result only in false, token respect.  Real respect must be earned by taking the other person’s needs into consideration.  For the two-way process of respect to work efficiently, several things are required.  First, each person must be aware of what he or she needs to feel respected and needs to clearly express it.  People have to listen non judgmentally and non defensively to each other.  This difficult step is easier when you make a sincere effort to be curious and to care about the other’s thoughts and feelings.  Third, you have to believe that feelings matter—yours and the other person’s.  When you give respect, you’re much more likely to get respect.

Is respect really important?  If you ask many founders to list in order of importance the attributes that make their business successful, respect for other family members isn’t likely to appear high on the list—if it appears at all.  But I believe that respect is essential for long-term survival of the family business.  Family members who don’t feel respect will not make their best contributions to the enterprise, and they may even unintentionally sabotage things.

Respect is a basic psychological need.  In evolutionary terms, those who did not have the respect of the tribe were abandoned and among the first to perish.  Human beings seek to belong to groups, and disrespect from the group feels intolerable and even dangerous.  Even the leaders—in modern times, those individuals who hold the power in a family business—crave it.  A successful business, while it may feed the founder’s respect, usually doesn’t nourish it enough.  I often feel that many founders have done such a tremendous job starting and growing their family businesses precisely because they saw the business as a means of gaining respect.  But somewhere along the line, the need for respect became confused with power.  History is full of examples of powerful rulers who started horrendous wars and whose kingdoms crumbled because, confusing their quest for respect with the quest for power, they couldn’t exercise the kind of wisdom, empathy, and benevolence that creates a culture of respect.  Eventually, people who mistake power for respect become like a mouse on a treadmill, running faster and faster in a futile chase, more and more determined to hang on to their power, when the real solution lies in stepping off the treadmill and doing some self-analysis, soul searching, and sincere listening to others.

As with love, we most want respect from those with whom we’re the closest; shareholders seldom satisfy our deepest need for respect.  We can’t treat family members like automatons, servants, or subjects who should give us respect simply because we demand it.  When we are respected, we earn, through the way in which we communicate and connect with people, family members’ voluntary respect.  Communicating—which involves not just saying what we want but learning to help and to listen to others say what’s important to them—actually takes less energy in the long run than continually charging ahead by yourself.  Disrespect breeds conflicts, and family business conflicts are among the most serious and nonproductive energy drains that I know of.  In the end, the wise stewards, not the raging tyrants, are the ones who acquire the most respect.

To get respect, you have to give it.  You will also receive disrespect if you give that.  Remember that people don’t feel respected when:

  • We ignore them
  • We don’t take their feelings seriously
  • They feel we don’t try to understand them
  • We don’t ask for their opinions or ideas
  • We refuse to accept or consider their way of doing things
  • We don’t answer or evade their questions
  • They feel judged or rejected
  • They feel we underestimate them