Watch Your Language
‘Families and fortunes have been torn asunder by what family members say to each other and howthey say it,' one expert reminds us. Test your own tact on these four case examples of family businessconversations.
Words can hurt just as surely as sticks and stones—whether 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.
“Families and fortunes have been torn asunder by what family members say to each other and how theysay it,” 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. What’s more, Handler pointsout, what people don’t 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. “Family members spend years rehearsing their communicationpatterns,” says Susan Glaser, partner in a management consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon, thatspecializes in corporate communications. “The way a father has spoken to his son since childhood—or ason to a father, a sister to a brother—will 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.”
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 place—a conversation that self-destructs, damaging the speakers’ 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 job—and 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.
A CEO's Absenteeism
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.
The Destructive Dialogue
John: One second. I’m busy…Okay, what?
Mary: Now don’t get defensive, but I think there’s 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 you’re 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? It’s not even true.
Mary: You may be the CEO but he’s still the heart of this company. I knew you’d get reallydefensive if I tried to talk to you.
John: So far you haven’t said anything.
Mary: Okay, I’ll tell you what’s happening around here. You’re going off to your Rotary club,board meetings, symphonies, and art galleries. Whatever it is, you’re not around. The supervisorsdon’t 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 wouldn’t listen to me. You never have. All I want you to know is that thisentire company is in an uproar because you’re never here.
The Constructive Dialogue
John: One second. I’m busy… Okay, what?
Mary: Is this is a bad time?
John: No, it’s okay. Talk.
Mary: I’m 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 o’clock or so. Now I know you need to go to those meetings, and they’re goodfor business but…
John: That’s right.
Mary:…but 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 didn’t 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 we’ve got to come up with a way to handle questions when you’re not here.
John: What do you think we can do? I don’t want people bumping into each other just because I’mnot here.
Mary: Could we modify your schedule? Maybe establish certain times in, certain times out—timesthe employees can count on?
John: I could be more diligent about telling you when I’ll be gone. Another thing you could dois hang out with me more and learn the procedures. When I’m 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 don’t know. Let’s 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.
- Mary induces a negative response.
- Mary sets John up to be defensive, and she should not lean on her father.
- A very wide accusatory net.
- Who’s “everyone?”
- Should warn Mary that she and John are on the wrong track.
- Deepens the disaster by agreeing with John’s term “garbage.”
- A massive put-down of John’s role.
- Mary projects her insecurity by relying on the supervisors to get her point across.
- John could have started a real discussion here, but he now goes on the attack.
- Mary accepts her self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Shows concern instead of accusing John.
- Good use of specific examples of John’s absences.
- Tactful handling of the issue.
- Mary includes herself in the search for a solution.
- Willing response from a non-threatened John.
- Nicely moves the dialogue from a statement of problems into suggestion of remedies.
- John indicates he’s open to compromise.
- Good resolution. Both can think for a bit and discuss the issue at a more convenienttime.
A Nonfamily Manager's Demands
Founder Jack Johnson’s right-hand man, Mark Smith, 55, has made it clear that if he is notmade CEO upon Jack’s retirement he will start his own company. Jack’s wife, Ann, and two sons who arein the business—Peter, 30, and Ted, 25—meet to discuss their position.
Based on a case in the Harvard Business Review, Sept./Oct. 1989.
The Destructive Dialogue
Peter (to Ted): I can’t 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 he’d be so greedy? Anyway, Mark isbright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. Now that Dad’s retiring, ofcourse, Mark won’t 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 know—but Mark’s been much more of a success at running his department. It’s grown by 60percent.
Peter: More like 30 percent.
Ted: Look, I’m sorry if this wounds your pride, Peter, but Mark is responsible for much more ofthe revenues than either you or I. Remember, I’m 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: You’re talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets backfrom his business trip, he’ll straighten all this out with Mark.
Ted: Mom, you know that Dad’s playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confrontthe facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesn’t want to face it. He won’t even talk about it! Isay we give Mark what he wants—let him be CEO. Or else we’ll all lose our shirts.
Peter: You’re out of your mind.
The Constructive Dialogue
Peter: Why don’t we talk about Mark’s proposal before Dad gets back? As I see it, he wants tobe CEO when Dad retires.
Ted: I don’t know how we could have seen this coming. It’s 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 he’s being greedy. He is bright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. SoI can see why he doesn’t want to settle for working under you or me. Let’s talk about what he wantsand what this business owes him. Don’t you think it’s fair to say that it’s as much his business asours?
Mother: But your father built it so you or Peter could someday take it over.
Ted: That’s true. But we can’t deny that Mark’s been quite a success at running his department.It’s grown by 60 percent.
Peter: More like 30 percent.
Ted: Well, I’m the accountant, and I’m afraid it’s more than that. Anyway, let’s stick to theissue. Mark wants more. Let’s talk about what we can afford to give him—or not give him. Okay?
Mother: You’re talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets backfrom his trip, he’ll straighten all this out with Mark.
Ted: Mom, you know that Dad’s playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confrontthe facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesn’t want to face it. He won’t even talk about it!
Peter: You’re 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 doesn’t contribute.
- Ted has arrived at his conclusion without input from the others.
- Good for initiating discussion. States issue without hindering others’ opinions.
- Invites team response.
- A tactful way of expressing an opinion that may be hard for others to accept.
- Gets discussion back on track.
Father Knows Best?
A son just out of graduate school suggests to his father, the founder and CEO, that thecompany change some basic systems.
The Destructive Dialogue
Son: Dad, I think it’s time we changed the inventory system around here. It’s like somethingfrom the Middle Ages.
Dad: Well, Junior, I instituted that system 30 years ago—and you’ve 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 I’m talkingabout. You’re not listening.
Dad: All I know is that I’ve had a lot more experience around this place than you. I know whatworks and what doesn’t. You listen to me.
Son: But you were so insistent that I get an MBA. What was all that studying for if you won’teven consider any of my suggestions?
Dad: You are not different from anyone else around this company. Lots of people come to me withsuggestions but I’m not obliged to institute any of them. Remember, I pay the salaries, and after 30years I should know what’s best for this company.
Son: Well a lot of people,including me, are going to start walking out the door if you don’tloosen up.
The Constructive Dialogue
Son: Dad, what do you think about our inventory system? Sometimes I think we could tune it tomake it more efficient.
Dad: I don’t think about it all that much. It’s worked just fine all these years. Are yousaying something’s 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 doesn’t know how to use thecomputers we’ve got. I don’t know what good bringing in a fancy new system would do.
Son: Well, that’s the point. I think they could use a little retraining to come up to speed ona better system. Maybe it’s time we became a bit more high-tech.
Dad: Well, remember, you’ve only worked here for two weeks. You don’t know everything. I’ve hadthis inventory system for 30 years.
Son: I know, but I’ve 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. Let’s talk about it afteryou’ve 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 O’Leary, 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 don’t 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 won’t listen.
- Dad pulls out all the power stops. He’s in charge, his experience means more than anMBA.
- Establishes that this conversation will not continue.
- A massive put down.
- Idle threat.
- 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 Dad’s getting difficult, son doesn’t lose sight of the purpose of thisconversation.
- Son is reinforcing his credentials; indicates he deserves to be listened to like abusiness colleague.
Daddy's Little Girl
A daughter recently hired by the family publishing company goes to her father for advice on aproblem she can’t solve. He decides to ask another employee to step in—Chuck, the manager whopreviously held the daughter’s job.
The Destructive Dialogue
Daughter: Dad, I need you to help me out.
Dad: You know I always will. What’s 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, there’s always a few of them that come in late every day.
Dad: Well, honey, maybe I’ll 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, you’re so insulting! Don’t 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. I’m not saying it’s your fault—you’ve never been as tough as David, and you shouldn’thave to be. That’s just fine.
Daughter: It’s not “just fine” now that I’m in management and earning a manager’s salary. Idon’t want Chuck or you or David doing my work for me. I just want you to tell me how I can solve thisproblem.
Dad: Don’t worry, the department’s running okay. We all think you’re doing a great job.
Daughter: Well, David’s told me we wouldn’t miss our press dates so often if theword-processing people were all in on time.
Dad: I’ll take care of David. I think you’re doing a great job.
The Constructive Dialogue
Daughter: Dad, I’m having a management problem that I think is important, and I’d like tostraighten it out on my own but I’d appreciate any advice you have on the best way to do it.
Dad: I’m listening. What is it?
Daughter: Although I’ve tried different things, there are still a few word-processing peoplewho never get to work on time. We’ve 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 them…
Daughter: No, Dad. I’m 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 don’t you come back to me after you’ve written down some thoughts on what shouldbe included in the new policy, and then we can talk about instituting it. Let’s see if you can’t 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 can’t 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 daughter’s sense of incompetence, and Dad’s 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 daughter’s hands.
- Explains the limitations of Dad’s 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.
Non-communication in the Watson family
In his candid memoir Father, Son, and Co. (Bantam Books), Tom Watson Jr., IBM’s chairmanemeritus, describes a rivalry between himself and his sister, Jane. Tom felt Jane was “Father’sfavorite.” 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 father’s death, Jane sold a million dollars of IBM stock, one-third of herholding—without consulting Tom. When Tom found out, he interpreted the sale as a vote of noconfidence, and went to Jane’s home in Washington, D.C., to discuss it. As he writes, the conversationwent like this:
“‘Of course it’s your right to sell whenever you want,’ I told her, ‘but why did you do it?’ Jane wasawfully surprised that I knew about the sale, because she didn’t 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, ‘Dad, you picked up my bags and left meat the station!’ his answer might be ‘Oh, I thought you wanted to walk home!’ That’s the kind ofimpossible response I got from Jane: ‘I didn’t think you’d be interested.’
“‘How can you possibly think that? I’ve been running this business and you’ve been a beneficiary ofit. But you’ve never given the slightest hint that you think this record is worth tipping a hatto.’
“‘Oh, Tom. You know I think that.’
“‘So then why are you selling your stock?’
“‘Because I have to protect my family’s future.’
“In 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.”
Honing your conversational skills
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 Glasers’ advice on improving communicative skills:
- Talk in the “first person.” Use “I” and “we” more than “you” when approachingsensitive subjects. Overuse of “you” tends to be taken as accusatory and confrontational, as in “Youshould know better,” or “You weren’t listening.” In contrast, framing a problem in terms of your ownreaction is less offensive: “Did I forget to mention how important it was that these orders go out?”or “I feel hurt when my ideas are disregarded.”
- Pinpoint specifics. People are less defensive when reminded of a single instance ofneglectful behavior than when they are told they are incompetent. Most of us will admit to onemistake, but resent generalized assertions about our character or ability. You can use specificinstances to make a larger point about overall behavior, however.
- Acknowledge that you may have been part of the problem. You can be generous andsuggest, for example, that “Maybe my instructions weren’t clear.” Or, if appropriate, you can indicateyou should have brought an issue up sooner: “I know I should have said something earlier, so it’spartly my fault.”
- Collaborate on a solution. Think of creative ways to solve a problem together.Remember, it’s the problem—not the people—who are on the examination table.
- When criticized, paraphrase what a person is telling you. Show you understand thereasons why someone is criticizing you, and how he or she feels about the issue being raised. Forexample: “So you’re angry with me because you think I humor you and don’t really listen?”
- In response to general criticism, ask for specifics. “Were you angry mostly because Iforgot to send those invoices out after you told me they were important?”
- Agree with facts. “You’re right. I did forget to mail the invoices after youemphasized their importance.”
- Make a sincere effort to understand a critic’s perception, and admit when you’rewrong. “Given these facts, I can see how you would think I’m not listening, when I say I’ll dosomething and don’t.” This takes guts, but remember, admitting to a single mistake does not imply lackof competence or character. In the long run, such an admission shows strength of character and earnsrespect.
Parents must watch their tongues whentalking to “the kids”—er, the younger generation—at the office, if they want their sons and daughtersto mature in the business. Below, some tips on language to avoid, offered by Thomas O’Leary, JaneSullivan, and Robert Denmark of Personal Resource Management Associates in Montclair, New Jersey.
- Don’t call sons and daughters “kids,” and don’t address them bynicknames. If you do, the son or daughter, and other employees, will read it to mean: “The kids arestill kids, even though they may be managers, vice-presidents, or directors.”
- Don’t tell a son or daughter, “You’re not ready for that,” or,“This is the way we’ve always done it.” It will be read: “Remember who’s in control here.”
- Never remind offspring: “I’m the one who’s paying your salary,”or, “I’m giving you this bonus.” Such language indicates that a son or daughter’s compensation isbased on the parent’s benevolence, not on his or her performance. A clear recital of the recipient’sachievements, of the reasons the increase is deserved, will do more to boost self- esteem.
- Avoid all variations of the clich�(c): “Someday, son, all this willbe yours.” Read: “There is no real succession plan at this company.”
- Also avoid another harmful clich�(c): “I’ve built this business fromthe ground up, and you want to change it after you’re one year out of business school.” Read:“Education is not as valuable as experience.”