Words can hurt just as surely as sticks and stonesŃwhether those words are true or false,whether they are meant to wound or are simply uttered in haste. Particularly in a family business, thechoice of words often requires the skills and tact of a Bismarck or Disraeli.
ŅFamilies and fortunes have been torn asunder by what family members say to each other and how theysay it,Ó observes Wendy Handler, an associate professor of family business at Babson College inWellesley, Massachusetts.
Words, of course, hurt the most when they reflect deep-seated rivalries, ancient resentments, orfundamental disagreements over issues or values. Unless such basic conflicts are brought to thesurface and resolved, the business may remain a conversational minefield. WhatÕs more, Handler pointsout, what people donÕt say to one another can often be just as damaging as what they do say.
Nevertheless, experts believe that much can be done to improve communication in family businesses, toprevent speech habits that develop at home from spilling over at the office, and to hone skills fordiscussing highly emotional issues. ŅFamily members spend years rehearsing their communicationpatterns,Ó says Susan Glaser, partner in a management consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon, thatspecializes in corporate communications. ŅThe way a father has spoken to his son since childhoodŃor ason to a father, a sister to a brotherŃwill be carried over into the work environment. In some cases,these patterns will not be appropriate, and can be embarrassing for nonfamily members to witness.Ó
What follows are four examples of typical discussions about issues that arise in familybusinesses. In each example, two versions of the same discussion are presented. The first shows whatoften takes placeŃa conversation that self-destructs, damaging the speakersÕ feelings, because of themanner in which the speakers address each other.
The second version is a rewrite of the first, recast to show how the conversation could have beencarried out positively had the participants thought about their own words. For each conversation,comments on what the speakers are doing wrong or right are provided in the footnotes by experts infamily business and personal communication.
We present these pointers for families that want to communicate more effectively on the jobŃand stillremain on speaking terms.
Andrea Grace Mackiewicz is a senior editor with Business International, the globalinformation network owned by The Economist. She was an associate editor on the BusinessWeekNewsletter for Family Owned Business.
Mary perceives a problem with her brother, John, who is higher up in the company than she: Theemployees are unhappy that John spends so much time away from the office. She feels she must tell himabout it, and knows he will take it the wrong way.
John: One second. IÕm busyÉOkay, what?
Mary: Now donÕt get defensive, but I think thereÕs a problem around here. I ran it by Dad, andhe said I should talk to you.
John: Okay. Talk.
Mary: People are losing confidence because youÕre never here.
John: What people?
Mary: Everyone who works for us.
John: Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You told Dad this garbage?
Mary: Yeah, I ran it by him.
John: Mary, he retired three years ago. Give me a break! All he wants to do is relax, travel,and play some golf. Why are you bringing up this nonsense? ItÕs not even true.
Mary: You may be the CEO but heÕs still the heart of this company. I knew youÕd get reallydefensive if I tried to talk to you.
John: So far you havenÕt said anything.
Mary: Okay, IÕll tell you whatÕs happening around here. YouÕre going off to your Rotary club,board meetings, symphonies, and art galleries. Whatever it is, youÕre not around. The supervisorsdonÕt like it.
John: I keep a high profile for this company and I meet a lot of new customers through mycommunity involvement. What do you do? You come in late, you leave early; you go home and watch TVwith your kids. Then you complain to me and mess up my day.
Mary: I knew you wouldnÕt listen to me. You never have. All I want you to know is that thisentire company is in an uproar because youÕre never here.
John: One second. IÕm busyÉ Okay, what?
Mary: Is this is a bad time?
John: No, itÕs okay. Talk.
Mary: IÕm worried about something that is going on around here and wanted to talk to you aboutit.
John: What is it?
Mary: Let me tell you what happened this week. On Monday and Tuesday you had outside meetingsand had to leave about 2 oÕclock or so. Now I know you need to go to those meetings, and theyÕre goodfor business butÉ
John: ThatÕs right.
Mary:Ébut a couple of supervisors had questions to ask you, and when they came to me I had totell them you were gone for the rest of the day. They seemed discouraged because they didnÕt know whatthey should do.
John: Oh, I see.
Mary: It was hard for me to give them support. I know you have to go to those meetings, but Ithink weÕve got to come up with a way to handle questions when youÕre not here.
John: What do you think we can do? I donÕt want people bumping into each other just because IÕmnot here.
Mary: Could we modify your schedule? Maybe establish certain times in, certain times outŃtimesthe employees can count on?
John: I could be more diligent about telling you when IÕll be gone. Another thing you could dois hang out with me more and learn the procedures. When IÕm absent, you could fill in for me.
Mary: Okay. And if you forego a few meetings a week, I would be willing to work more hours.
John: You know I really love my meetings. Which ones could I drop?
Mary: I donÕt know. LetÕs both think about it. Maybe we can go to breakfast tomorrow anddecide.
John: Good idea.
Critiques by Louis B. Barnes, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard BusinessSchool.
Founder Jack JohnsonÕs right-hand man, Mark Smith, 55, has made it clear that if he is notmade CEO upon JackÕs retirement he will start his own company. JackÕs wife, Ann, and two sons who arein the businessŃPeter, 30, and Ted, 25Ńmeet to discuss their position.
Based on a case in the Harvard Business Review, Sept./Oct. 1989.
Peter (to Ted): I canÕt believe you want to give up so easily!
Ted: What do you mean? Mark has been with us for 30 years. He owns 25 percent of the businessalready and manages much more than that. How was I suppose to know heÕd be so greedy? Anyway, Mark isbright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. Now that DadÕs retiring, ofcourse, Mark wonÕt settle for working under you or me. The truth is, ABC Inc. is his business as muchas it is ours.
Mother: Your father would be furious if he heard you say that! He built this business so you orPeter could take over.
Ted: I knowŃbut MarkÕs been much more of a success at running his department. ItÕs grown by 60percent.
Peter: More like 30 percent.
Ted: Look, IÕm sorry if this wounds your pride, Peter, but Mark is responsible for much more ofthe revenues than either you or I. Remember, IÕm the accountant.
Peter: Dad did not build this company so that you and I and our children would someday work forMark Smith. I should be the one to take over from Dad so this company stays in the family.
Mother: YouÕre talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets backfrom his business trip, heÕll straighten all this out with Mark.
Ted: Mom, you know that DadÕs playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confrontthe facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesnÕt want to face it. He wonÕt even talk about it! Isay we give Mark what he wantsŃlet him be CEO. Or else weÕll all lose our shirts.
Peter: YouÕre out of your mind.
Peter: Why donÕt we talk about MarkÕs proposal before Dad gets back? As I see it, he wants tobe CEO when Dad retires.
Ted: I donÕt know how we could have seen this coming. ItÕs true, Mark has been with us for 30years. He owns 25 percent of the business already and manages much more than that. But he does soundlike heÕs being greedy. He is bright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. SoI can see why he doesnÕt want to settle for working under you or me. LetÕs talk about what he wantsand what this business owes him. DonÕt you think itÕs fair to say that itÕs as much his business asours?
Mother: But your father built it so you or Peter could someday take it over.
Ted: ThatÕs true. But we canÕt deny that MarkÕs been quite a success at running his department.ItÕs grown by 60 percent.
Peter: More like 30 percent.
Ted: Well, IÕm the accountant, and IÕm afraid itÕs more than that. Anyway, letÕs stick to theissue. Mark wants more. LetÕs talk about what we can afford to give himŃor not give him. Okay?
Mother: YouÕre talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets backfrom his trip, heÕll straighten all this out with Mark.
Ted: Mom, you know that DadÕs playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confrontthe facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesnÕt want to face it. He wonÕt even talk about it!
Peter: YouÕre right there. Okay, where do we start?
Critiques by Deborah Menashi, David Paradise, and Michael Sales, of the FamilyBusiness Resource Center in Newton, Massachusetts.
Never begin any discussion with an accusation.
Ted is put on the defensive. The chance for an objective discussion already looks dim.
Mother is not adding much by sentimentalizing the feelings of absent Father.
A put-down of Peter.
Inflammatory and hardly constructive.
Mother just continues to get upset and doesnÕt contribute.
Ted has arrived at his conclusion without input from the others.
Good for initiating discussion. States issue without hindering othersÕ opinions.
Invites team response.
A tactful way of expressing an opinion that may be hard for others to accept.
Gets discussion back on track.
A son just out of graduate school suggests to his father, the founder and CEO, that thecompany change some basic systems.
Son: Dad, I think itÕs time we changed the inventory system around here. ItÕs like somethingfrom the Middle Ages.
Dad: Well, Junior, I instituted that system 30 years agoŃand youÕve been on the job for twoweeks now and want to change it. Forget it.
Son: Dad, look, inventory systems was one of my specialities at school. I know what IÕm talkingabout. YouÕre not listening.
Dad: All I know is that IÕve had a lot more experience around this place than you. I know whatworks and what doesnÕt. You listen to me.
Son: But you were so insistent that I get an MBA. What was all that studying for if you wonÕteven consider any of my suggestions?
Dad: You are not different from anyone else around this company. Lots of people come to me withsuggestions but IÕm not obliged to institute any of them. Remember, I pay the salaries, and after 30years I should know whatÕs best for this company.
Son: Well a lot of people,including me, are going to start walking out the door if you donÕtloosen up.
Son: Dad, what do you think about our inventory system? Sometimes I think we could tune it tomake it more efficient.
Dad: I donÕt think about it all that much. ItÕs worked just fine all these years. Are yousaying somethingÕs wrong with it?
Son: No, but I studied a lot of different new systems at school. I think we should look atgetting a computer program that can track outgoing inventory faster and more efficiently than the waywe do it now. The purchasing department might be able to save a lot on ordering.
Dad: Oh, all this business school talk! The purchasing department doesnÕt know how to use thecomputers weÕve got. I donÕt know what good bringing in a fancy new system would do.
Son: Well, thatÕs the point. I think they could use a little retraining to come up to speed ona better system. Maybe itÕs time we became a bit more high-tech.
Dad: Well, remember, youÕve only worked here for two weeks. You donÕt know everything. IÕve hadthis inventory system for 30 years.
Son: I know, but IÕve worked up this plan on paper that will show you how much better we couldall be with some retraining. Just take a look and give it some thought. LetÕs talk about it afteryouÕve had a chance to read it.
Dad: Okay, but no promises.
Son: Remember, you sent me to business school for a reason. You should hear me out every nowand then, right?.
Dad: Yeah, okay. Go back to work.
Critiques by Jane Sullivan, Tom OÕLeary, and Robert Denmark of Personal ResourceManagement Associates in Montclair, New Jersey, management consultants to family owned companies.
Off-putting, presumptuous, and cocky. Makes Dad defensive.
Insults or exaggerations donÕt help.
Nickname indicates the kid is still a kid, not a business colleague.
Shuts door on a proposal that might have merit.
Inflammatory, and the best way to ensure that Dad wonÕt listen.
Dad pulls out all the power stops. HeÕs in charge, his experience means more than anMBA.
Establishes that this conversation will not continue.
A massive put down.
Suggesting that a modest change should be considered is a sensible opening.
Son shows respect for Dad; invites discussion.
Indicates Dad is willing to hear son out.
Positive points help make case.
Son continues in a sensible, non-accusatory vein.
Though DadÕs getting difficult, son doesnÕt lose sight of the purpose of thisconversation.
Son is reinforcing his credentials; indicates he deserves to be listened to like abusiness colleague.
A daughter recently hired by the family publishing company goes to her father for advice on aproblem she canÕt solve. He decides to ask another employee to step inŃChuck, the manager whopreviously held the daughterÕs job.
Daughter: Dad, I need you to help me out.
Dad: You know I always will. WhatÕs wrong?
Daughter: I have trouble getting the word-processing people to come to work on time. No matterwhat I say or how much I lecture, thereÕs always a few of them that come in late every day.
Dad: Well, honey, maybe IÕll ask Chuck to talk to them. After all, he had your job for allthose years. He knows how to keep those people in line.
Daughter: Dad, youÕre so insulting! DonÕt you think I can manage six staffers on my own? I betyou never say those words to [brother] David when he comes to talk to you about a managementproblem.
Dad: Your brother has never brought this kind of problem to me. He has no trouble making hisorders known. IÕm not saying itÕs your faultŃyouÕve never been as tough as David, and you shouldnÕthave to be. ThatÕs just fine.
Daughter: ItÕs not Ņjust fineÓ now that IÕm in management and earning a managerÕs salary. IdonÕt want Chuck or you or David doing my work for me. I just want you to tell me how I can solve thisproblem.
Dad: DonÕt worry, the departmentÕs running okay. We all think youÕre doing a great job.
Daughter: Well, DavidÕs told me we wouldnÕt miss our press dates so often if theword-processing people were all in on time.
Dad: IÕll take care of David. I think youÕre doing a great job.
Daughter: Dad, IÕm having a management problem that I think is important, and IÕd like tostraighten it out on my own but IÕd appreciate any advice you have on the best way to do it.
Dad: IÕm listening. What is it?
Daughter: Although IÕve tried different things, there are still a few word-processing peoplewho never get to work on time. WeÕve been late in going to press a few times because of it. I knowthat David would like to see my people get here on time so he can go to press earlier.
Dad: Well, maybe I could have Chuck talk to themÉ
Daughter: No, Dad. IÕm in charge of the word-processing department now. Chuck has newresponsibilities. It would look bad for me if he came in and read the riot act to a few of myemployees, and then left.
Dad: Right. What if I sent a memo to the department, announcing a new tardy policy?
Daughter: Dad, I insist that this policy come from me. I think the idea of a new tardy policyis a good one. Let me think about what it should be.
Dad: Okay. Why donÕt you come back to me after youÕve written down some thoughts on what shouldbe included in the new policy, and then we can talk about instituting it. LetÕs see if you canÕt getthe department to work more efficiently.
Critiques by Wendy Handler, associate professor of family business at Babson College inWellesley, Massachusetts.
Is this an adult or a little girl asking her father for advice?
Fosters dependency on the parent.
Relates her own sense of incompetence.
Too endearing for any employee.
Dad protects daughter, and communicates that he canÕt work with her to reach aresolution.
Daughter defends herself by blaming Dad, and starts a personal attack.
Dad replies with a massive put-down.
Mixed signals: daughter wants management responsibilities, yet wants to be told what todo.
Dad placates daughter.
Moves conversation away from problem-solving to emotion-soothing.
Daughter relies on brother to get her point across.
Reinforces daughterÕs sense of incompetence, and DadÕs desire to smooth it over.
Daughter asks directly for problem feedback.
Shows openness, not bias.
Indicates difficulty but not incompetence.
Takes the problem out of daughterÕs hands.
Explains the limitations of DadÕs suggestions without attacking him.
Shows determination to take responsibility, without being adverse to using her father as aresource.
Suggests Dad is confident daughter can do the work. Also indicates availability, notcontrol.
Communicates that he sees daughter is in charge.
In his candid memoir Father, Son, and Co. (Bantam Books), Tom Watson Jr., IBMÕs chairmanemeritus, describes a rivalry between himself and his sister, Jane. Tom felt Jane was ŅFatherÕsfavorite.Ó He also felt that his sister had retained a negative impression of his talents, even afterhe had taken over IBM from Tom Watson Sr.
The second year after the fatherÕs death, Jane sold a million dollars of IBM stock, one-third of herholdingŃwithout consulting Tom. When Tom found out, he interpreted the sale as a vote of noconfidence, and went to JaneÕs home in Washington, D.C., to discuss it. As he writes, the conversationwent like this:
ŅŌOf course itÕs your right to sell whenever you want,Õ I told her, Ōbut why did you do it?Õ Jane wasawfully surprised that I knew about the sale, because she didnÕt understand corporations well enoughto realize that a million-dollar sale is reported to the chief executive. But getting an answer out ofher was exactly like having a discussion with the old man. Sometimes when you tried to pin him down,my father would give a totally ridiculous answer. If you said, ŌDad, you picked up my bags and left meat the station!Õ his answer might be ŌOh, I thought you wanted to walk home!Õ ThatÕs the kind ofimpossible response I got from Jane: ŌI didnÕt think youÕd be interested.Õ
ŅŌHow can you possibly think that? IÕve been running this business and youÕve been a beneficiary ofit. But youÕve never given the slightest hint that you think this record is worth tipping a hatto.Õ
ŅŌOh, Tom. You know I think that.Õ
ŅŌSo then why are you selling your stock?Õ
ŅŌBecause I have to protect my familyÕs future.Õ
ŅIn retrospect, I can see Jane was probably following the advice of some financial counselor whoconvinced her it was prudent to diversify her holdings. But at the time her selling off the stockreally knocked me back, and it was the end of warm feelings between us for a number of years.Ó
Susan and Peter Glaser, specialistsin corporate communication, say the way to correct a harmful communication pattern is to firstrecognize it as such, then explicitly change it.
The husband-and-wife team, founders of Glaser & Associates in Eugene, Oregon, has had such largeclients as Weyerhaeuser, Hewlett-Packard, and Best Western. But they have a special affinity forfamily businesses, in part because they run one and have had to confront their own communicationproblems.
The GlasersÕ advice on improving communicative skills:
Parents must watch their tongues whentalking to Ņthe kidsÓŃer, the younger generationŃat the office, if they want their sons and daughtersto mature in the business. Below, some tips on language to avoid, offered by Thomas OÕLeary, JaneSullivan, and Robert Denmark of Personal Resource Management Associates in Montclair, New Jersey.
DonÕt call sons and daughters Ņkids,Ó and donÕt address them bynicknames. If you do, the son or daughter, and other employees, will read it to mean: ŅThe kids arestill kids, even though they may be managers, vice-presidents, or directors.Ó
DonÕt tell a son or daughter, ŅYouÕre not ready for that,Ó or,ŅThis is the way weÕve always done it.Ó It will be read: ŅRemember whoÕs in control here.Ó
Never remind offspring: ŅIÕm the one whoÕs paying your salary,Óor, ŅIÕm giving you this bonus.Ó Such language indicates that a son or daughterÕs compensation isbased on the parentÕs benevolence, not on his or her performance. A clear recital of the recipientÕsachievements, of the reasons the increase is deserved, will do more to boost self- esteem.
Avoid all variations of the clichˇ: ŅSomeday, son, all this willbe yours.Ó Read: ŅThere is no real succession plan at this company.Ó
Also avoid another harmful clichˇ: ŅIÕve built this business fromthe ground up, and you want to change it after youÕre one year out of business school.Ó Read:ŅEducation is not as valuable as experience.Ó