Sibling Behavior Decoded

By Ellen Frankenberg

Will your children get along in the business? Do you want a first-born or later-born as CEO? Social science offers some partial answers.

As a family psychologist and consultant to family firms, one of my most rewarding experiences is to sit down with brothers and sisters as they renegotiate old rivalries and stereotypes from childhood. Usually this happens after the unexpected death of a parent when siblings are suddenly forced to make decisions without Mom or Dad. It is wonderful to see people who have been together all their lives—and thought they knew everything about each other—reach beyond rhetoric and enjoy the surprise of meeting each other for the first time as adults.

The sibling bond usually lasts longer than any of our other family ties. Our sibs enter our lives, without our having any say in it, long before our spouses, and most of them outlive our parents. According to some social scientists, our position in the “sib line,” or birth order, can have a profound affect on personality. The oldest are more likely to become National Merit Scholars than so-called later-borns. Middle children tend to develop creative ways to negotiate and become mediators. The youngest children, always having had an audience, often resort to outrageous imitations of everyone else in the family.

It is well known that sibling differences can be the source of everlasting bitterness. Sibling rivalry erupted from the very beginning in the human family, as told in the Book of Genesis, when Yahweh himself favored Adam’s younger son, Abel, and his gifts, more than Cain, the eldest. Fratricide shattered the oldest family of all, and even God did not prevent it.

Sibling relationships in a family business are rarely murderous, but they do carry enormous emotional power. As siblings enter the family business, their rivalries can erupt with ancient force on the shop floor or in the front office. The strength of sibling bonds can stabilize a company, but sibling warfare can drag it down.

What does social science have to tell us about all this? I recently came across a new book by a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who attempted to correlate birth order with attitudes towards various scientific and political revolutions. Frank Sulloway compiled a database on more than 6,000 people, living and dead. In “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives” (Pantheon), he concludes that first-borns are more likely to be authoritarian defenders of the status quo, while later-borns are more inclined to welcome change and work to overturn the established order.

Perhaps these findings have some implications for choosing a successor in a family businesses. Although Sulloway examined the lives of scientists and political leaders, he thinks they also apply to business leaders.

There have been countless other studies of siblings. What follows are some observations drawn from my own work with family businesses, from Sulloway’s research, from Stephen Banks and Michael Kahn’s recently revised book “The Sibling Bond” (HarperCollins), and from other professional sources.

First-born children from different families are often more alike than siblings in the same family. First-borns identify closely with the parental generation and so tend to be more conservative than later-borns. That is understandable, since, as frequent baby-sitters for their sibs, they are often stand-ins for Mom and Dad. First-borns are taught to speak up and tell Mom what really happened while she was at the store. Generally, they are more comfortable in take-charge situations than their younger sibs. They tend to become more conscientious and responsible, and, consequently, more worried and anxious about problems beyond their control. In contrast, later-borns of every socioeconomic class are inclined to be liberal and open-minded in their thinking. They accept new ideas more readily than first-borns.

The oldest son, groomed from the time he was six to take over the family company, may worry all night about last year’s performance figures. He may share his fears more readily with the company attorney, also a first-born, than with his younger brother, the golfer, who shows up nine holes late every sunny morning. But the younger sibling may be more of a strategic thinker. He also might be quite happy to turn the company upside down, if that is what is needed to rescue it from the doldrums.

Parents do have favorites. Consciously or not, a parent will give special treatment to a child who happens to resemble his or her side of the family, or to the child who was born after three miscarriages, or to “the baby,” who is also the first boy. In one recent survey, more than two-thirds of those interviewed reported that their parents did have favorites. Again and again, the secret resentment of siblings who felt they were not favored leaks out in spite of words such as “fairness” and “equality.” Hopefully, at least one parent will work hard to discover an emotional link with a child whose chemistry seems too much like Uncle Larry’s (the one who bankrupted grandma’s farm because of his insatiable gambling habit). That’s why, ideally, we have two.

A son or daughter may identify with and “speak for” one parent more than another, especially in times of conflict or divorce. Likewise, one sibling may become a favored candidate for promotion, even though his or her on-the-job performance has been less than stellar.

Fighting between sibs can be beneficial. Even though I personally abhor violence, I have come to accept fights between siblings, mostly because I have learned that the combatants usually have an exquisite sense of just how far to go without actually injuring each other. Within the protected environment of the home, siblings learn how to handle aggression and keep anger within limits—especially after younger brother reaches a muscular 6-foot-3. They also learn how to defend themselves in future confrontations with strangers.

Siblings who as children are encouraged to express strong differences directly are likely to find common ground and get over it later on. They ultimately experience more intimacy because their fights are honest and out in the open. Anger can be a powerful source of energy for positive change, especially when it is focused on intolerable behavior or on basic differences in ideas or values, not on destroying the other person.

Moms and Dads who fight fair with words at home—expressing honest disagreements without name-calling or obscenities—teach their sons and daughters valuable lessons about how to disagree, sort core values, and resolve differences in the family business without humiliating or dominating each other. Families that can fight and then make up within 24 hours—and still laugh together—end up with a deeper understanding of one another and also have more fun.

Personality differences between sibs can create advantages in a family firm. Successful sibling partners learn how to divide turf, as surely as they used to draw an imaginary line down the middle of the back seat while driving all the way to Michigan. A later-born daughter may be well suited to manage the new Quality Circles program because she learned early how to get along with all types of people and negotiate compromises. A youngest son may be delighted to open the company’s new sales office in Singapore; younger sibs tend to be more open to new experiences, because they continually define their uniqueness in contrast to the brother or sister who got there first.

Especially as family firms mature and diversify in the second and third generations, it becomes crucial to capitalize on the different strengths of siblings and cousins. The task is to discover the “niche” that best fits the talents, personality, and birth-order style of each son or daughter, whether inside or outside the family business. Spinoffs were invented for sibs and cousins who differ more than they agree.

Children of the same parents can actually be raised, in effect, by different parents. Between the birth of the first child and the last, especially if several years intervene, parents change—physically and psychologically—as do their economic circumstances. Therefore, a sibling’s place in the birth order heavily influences his or her experience of childhood. Generally, parents are most solicitous and even anxious when raising their first child. By the time the youngest comes along, they are considerably more relaxed because they’ve been there, done that. They know that both they and their offspring will survive almost anything—even the challenges of adolescence.

We all know that the youngest child is spoiled, perhaps because the parents can afford the top-of-the-line bike by then, or because their experience with first-borns taught them that some rules just don’t work so they don’t force them. When there is a gap between births of as many as six or seven years, the younger children may, in fact, enjoy the parents’ full attention, and grow up, in effect, as “only children.” In addition, the youngest child of two first-born parents may receive an extra dose of responsibility when growing up. All of this contributes to extraordinary diversity, even within the nuclear family—and potentially within the family firm.

Children raised without parents do not exhibit sibling rivalry. Children who survived the Holocaust without their parents stayed together under extraordinary circumstances. Their search for their lost families after the war only strengthened their bond and enabled them to avoid the competitiveness common among siblings raised in normal circumstances. Likewise, sets of siblings raised in orphanages reportedly develop close, cooperative relationships, perhaps because they are not competing for limited parental attention and have only each other to rely on for emotional support.

Certainly, no one would favor raising children without parents. Nor should the conclusion be drawn from this data that parental neglect promotes closeness between siblings. Parents who are stressed out, focused primarily on their own agendas, or lacking the emotional reserves to nurture each child may stimulate competition among sibs. Ideally, parents who are building a business should try to spend at least 15 minutes a day alone with each child when they come home at night.

Sibling unity against the world is not always a sign of health. Hansel and Gretel is the story of siblings who survive by using their wits and sticking together. Sadly, their enemies in the story are their parents—the stepmother, who covets scarce resources and wants to get rid of them, and the spineless father who goes along with the murderous plot to abandon them in the wilderness. As the siblings naively devise their plan to find their way home by dropping bread crumbs along the path, Hansel, presumably the eldest male child, is clearly the leader. But in the end it is actually Gretel, the younger sibling, who is the more aggressive one. She courageously saves Hansel’s life by pushing the wicked stepmother into the oven to her death. Incredibly, the happy ending includes a joyful reunion with their twice-widowed father, whom they continue to love in spite of his rejection and abuse of them. They all return home together to carry on the family wood-cutting business.

Fairy tales, especially those that become ingrained in the culture, do encapsulate some shred of truth. Perhaps we have preserved this story because the collaboration of sibs such as Hansel and Gretel is so extraordinary. They stick together even against powerful, hateful parents, as well as the most frightening threats and deceptions the evil world can fling at them. But the celebration of sibling loyalty, in this all-time dysfunctional family, is fundamentally disturbing. This family could have used significant help with their conflict-resolution skills. Healthy sibling loyalty is not forged against dominating, selfish parents or against a hostile world. It is taught by nurturing parents who have learned how to resolve their own conflicts and have enough love left over to offer their children, each of whom is a unique human being.

For most personality traits, sibling differences outweigh gender differences. First-born women can be as conservative and responsible as their first-born male cousins, and a man and woman who are both later-borns may find common cause in attacking the status quo. Over time, gender roles assigned by society—girls babysit the younger kids, boys carry out the garbage—have extraordinary power to create differences between the sexes. Two brothers with different places in the birth order often develop more divergent interests—one a back-hoe operator, the other a violinist—than two first-born cousins, one male and one female, who have similar upbringings and educations and may lead the family firm in similar directions.

Although children from the same biological parents have the same genetic inheritance, diversity within a family occurs because the genes are recombined in each offspring. As with Social Security numbers, the same digits can form thousands of combinations, each unique. Genetic differences across genders further complicates the picture. A first-born daughter who is a meticulous mechanical engineer may be a better CEO, and a better manager of a father’s retirement funds, than a later-born son who is Dad’s fishing buddy.

Anointing a first-born son, as an entitlement, is no way to run a family business. Americans vehemently rejected monarchy in the 18th century, and yet many family businesses continue to transfer power and assets by the rule of primogeniture. A new book about the downfall of the Schwinn bicycle company, No Hands,by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman (Henry Holt & Company), shows just how destructive that rule can be when the first-born son is arrogant and daughters are shut out of the leadership entirely. There are numerous examples of successful sibling partnerships, but such arrangements cannot work unless parents nurture a spirit of cooperation in their children from an early age.

Developing a succession plan involves assessing leadership abilities and providing opportunities for growth for all sons and daughters, so that the best prepared and best motivated are chosen as CEO, as VP for marketing, or as head of research, without regard to gender or birth order. A succession plan ideally includes an objective assessment of the leadership abilities and performances of all the candidates. Birth order does, however, affect personality—and the choice of one type of personality over another may turn on the stage of development of the business. Does the company need a super-responsible, conservative first-born to maintain its current market dominance? Or is the company facing a period of dramatically changing markets and new technologies, in which case it might be better off with a more adaptive, innovative later-born as its leader?

Siblings who as adults can redefine their relationships based on current realities rather than the past will be better able to make consistently good decisions together in a family business. By strengthening their bonds as adults, they will also enjoy a lifetime of rewarding experiences working together.

Perhaps some future fairy tale or spiritual saga will be written to tell the story of siblings who truly loved each other and made great decisions together. Perhaps the author will be the younger brother who flunked out of accounting school but found his niche as a creative writer. And perhaps this saga will help all sibs not only follow the crumbs but laugh all the way home.


Ellen Frankenberg, president of Frankenberg Associates in Cincinnati, is a psychologist who consults with families in business.


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Spring 1997

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