The Games Family Companies Play

The business environment is abound with games that people play– boardroom games, political games, one-upmanship games, money games , entitlement games, greed games– to name only a few.

A ‘game’ is the kind of non-authentic interaction that occurs in a relationship when someone has a personal agenda and is attempting to influence an outcome to their advantage.   Just one simple example would be attempting to influence a decision so that it will benefit a personal goal without being upfront about this.  To achieve this we will do and say things that are self-serving as opposed to being collaborative and focused on making a mutually beneficial decision.  Truly collaborative people do not need to play games because they do not have a hidden personal agenda.  They simply act in collaborative ways, with open, honest communication, genuinely seek solutions that will benefit all parties, and have absolutely no need to put others down.

Games can be played with conscious awareness or completely unconsciously, where neither the person initiating the game nor the person on the receiving end is aware that a game is taking place.  Nevertheless these relationship games are always dysfunctional and they consume valuable time, energy and focus. And they are extremely costly – operationally and personally.
Whether we are family members or strangers thrown together in an organization, we all carry our own emotional baggage which affects our behavior and our relationships.  And we all have our own special aspirations, needs, and beliefs.   No matter how intellectually competent and academically or technically talented we are,  at the end of the day we are still emotional human beings driven by these needs, feelings and beliefs which influence the way we interpret and perceive the world around us;  we are still deeply impacted by our emotional baggage.  It is this baggage that causes us to play relationship games.

Relationship Games in Family Controlled Companies (FCC’S)

Why do family businesses play games?
One might think that a family business, more than any other business, would have the advantage of being ‘game-free’ in their relationships.   It would seem that FCC’s may be more predisposed to being passionate about a shared vision, communicate more openly,  collaborate more easily and show genuine mutual trust and respect.   And yet we all know that this is not always the case.  Why?

It is my belief that the challenges that occur in family controlled businesses are driven by ego. Actually ego plays a role in every business, family or not, but it is significantly more pronounced in family businesses.   First it is important to understand that ego is not a bad thing – provided that we know how to recognize it and manage it.  In my book, Who’s in the Driver’s Seat, I speak about knowing how to recognize one’s ego and put it in the passenger seat.   Remember that the purpose of our egos is to protect and defend us from feeling uncomfortable and from being perceived by others as being inadequate.  So the ego will behave and communicate in ways that are defensive, self-righteous, arrogant, self-inflating and self serving, which too often results in creating unnecessary conflict in relationships.  Nobody enjoys being on the receiving end of a family member whose ego is behaving and speaking in that ego-driven way.   This creates dynamics that sabotage productivity and company success.

One of the greatest challenges facing all organizations – and family owned companies in particular, lies in teaching people to recognize and manage their egos and work creatively and productively together.  This challenge is significantly heightened when you put family members together in business because the games amongst family members become more complex and the interpersonal issues become even more sensitive.   It is unpleasant enough being put down by a boss at work, but when the boss is your father or brother this is has added implications.   Emotional baggage is difficult enough in non-family businesses, but can you imagine how this emotional baggage impacts family controlled companies!
Addressing ego games in FCC’s.
In non-family businesses,  team members attend teambuilding courses to learn how to manage their emotional baggage effectively, how to respond differently, how to take their ego out of the equation and be authentic.  In family enterprises, however, this kind of teambuilding exercise this can be extremely delicate.   It is one thing learning how to tell your manager that you do not appreciate the demeaning way he communicates, it is quite another to tell dad or a sister that they need to stop speaking to you in a way that humiliates you and diminishes the value of your input and talent.   This kind of conversation in a family owned company has the potential of affecting the whole family.

So before we examine what family owned companies can do to separate the family issues from the business issues let’s look at just two example of games I have seen family controlled companies play.

The “Yes but” Game
Do you recognize this one? One member of the family, let’s say the father and original founder, asks his son for his advice on a particular problem.  Each time the son comes up with a suggestion, father discounts this with a “yes but,” giving reasons as to why the proposed solutions will never work.  This kind of game is extremely frustrating because father has once again proven that son cannot tell him anything useful and son walks away reconfirming that no matter what he says he will be negated and diminished.   Father would not consciously want to belittle his son, but the game started many years ago – dad’s style is to play the ‘yes but’ game and his son, who learned to play the victim as a child, now unconsciously continues to play victim in the business situation.  If this is not effectively dealt with, this ‘yes but’ game can go on between father and son for the rest of their lives.  Also, while this unconscious game is being played, the business challenges are not being proactively and creatively managed.

The Game called “Blemish”
Then there is the game of “Blemish”.  The person who plays this game will not reward and recognize something positive but instead focus on something negative and trivial.  For example, this person will read through a brilliant report and call attention only to a word that is misspelled.  People who play the ‘blemish’  game very rarely have anything good to say about other people’s talents and achievements.  If, however, they do offer a compliment, they will immediately negate it with something negative.  The person doing this feels so self righteous and the other person collects feelings of anger, resentment, frustration or inadequacy.

This game often occurs between family member who have different perspectives and different thinking styles.  I have often worked in situations where one member of the family is an exceptional visionary and the other is a quantitative and highly rational thinker.  The rational thinker will use up time and energy to play ‘blemish’ by proving that the brilliant intuitive vision of the other family member is not logical and will never succeed.  While these two key family members are playing this game, the company is in great need of healthy leadership and management.  Nobody has a clear sense of where the company is going, everybody is pulling in different directions and competitors are gaining ground.
It is important that the games in a family owned company are identified and addressed so that family members can communicate in a forthright and effective way with each other for the sake of the family involved as well as the future of the business.
As the company grows, so family members are faced with continually addressing developmental questions about themselves, their roles, their abilities and their futures.   Structures, roles and responsibilities, accountabilities, titles and many other aspects of the business must change as the business grows.  This is a challenging task for family controlled companies as it requires open, honest discussion, soul searching, the ability to deal constructively with different opinions and perspectives and the skill to wear three hats – the business hat, the personal hat and the family hat.

So how do we do this?
1.    Understand the unique challenges of FCC’S.
The first step to being a healthy and successful family controlled business is for the leadership to empower themselves intellectually about the unique challenges that FCC’S  face.  It is critically important for the leaders not to be in denial about the fact that this kind of business cannot be led and managed like any other business; and for these leaders to understand that they are responsible and accountable for learning how to work with the family dynamics for the benefit of the company and all those in it, which include family and non-family members.  This understanding can be gained from deliberately deciding to read the excellent literature and research that is available on this topic and attend conferences that deal specifically with these challenges.
2.    Make use of Ongoing Coaching
To achieve the professional and business goals effectively and efficiently, the leaders of FCC’S have a personal responsibility :
•    To become aware of their egos and the impact their behavior and communication are having on others
•    To learn how manage their egos so that this does not get in the way of success.
Since this type of awareness and learning is not something we acquire in our education, I would suggest that FCCs should always have an organizational coach for the executive team.

Ongoing coaching will assist family members not to become enmeshed in family dynamics that are counter-productive to themselves, each other and the business.  In the beginning, this coaching would take place on a regular basis; as time goes on it would be required only on a needs basis.
In fact I would go so far as to say that FCCs that choose to play the game of “Let’s Pretend” that we are managing this well, that we have no problems, – and who do not believe that coaching can play a vital role in their success – are setting themselves up for unnecessary ongoing crises.  The crises may take time to reach boiling point and in the interim people may be getting hurt, sometimes even getting sick, self esteem may take a battering and the company is unlikely to be achieving its greatest potential.

I encourage FCCs to develop a healthy respect for the benefits of business and personal coaching.  The reality is that FCC’s can benefit immensely from the objective input of a talented  business coach who can teach them how to separate the business issues from the family and personal issues.
The selection of the right coach is extremely important.  This person must have the unique combination of psychological skills to deal with the people issues, as well as strategic and organizational development skills to deal with business issues.

3.    Make Decisions using an Organizational Development Model
I would also recommend that FCCs work with a good developmental business model.  When decision-makers have an in-depth understanding of the normal developmental stages of growth, this becomes the conceptual basis for all discussions, planning, decision making and strategizing.  Having a developmental model as the basis for planning the company’s growth will assist the leaders of FCC’s companies to separate the company issues from personal agendas.  It is important for the leadership of FCCs to be able to test all their business decisions against the objectivity of such a developmental model.
Three Steps of Action You Can Take Now!

In conclusion, the following 3 steps can make a significant positive difference to reducing operating costs, increasing profit and creating something meaningful for all family members involved in the business:
1.     Become educated about the unique challenges of FCC’s and speak openly at leadership level about this.  (Invite Dr Sandy Gluckman to do a powerful presentation to the leadership team. Call the number below to find out more about this).
2.    Hire a talented business and professional coach to work with the leadership team. (Dr Sandy Gluckman provides exceptional FCC coaching and executive team build seminars.   Call the number below to find out more about this).
3.    Make all business decisions within the framework of a business developmental model.  (Invite Dr Sandy Gluckman to present a dynamic business model to the leadership team. Call the number below to find out more about this).
The solution is remarkably simple.  It just takes foresight and a strong desire to become a family controlled company that knows how to use the family relationships in a powerful and positive business manner!

Call me at 972.758.1246.  I will be glad to facilitate a FCC team build seminar that will measurably improve the achievement of your business goals.  Or me for an insightful and practical presentation to leadership about the challenges in family controlled companies.


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