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Boundaries And The Family Business

Boundaries And The Family Business
A surprising number of family conflicts have to do, ultimately, with “boundary issues.”

You can define a well-run ranch any number of ways. Perhaps one of the most visible, however, is its fences.

Tight wires and fenceposts in perfect formation speak volumes about the fence builder and, by extension, how the rest of the ranch is run. Pasture boundaries are as firm and tight as the management philosophy behind them.

Building fences is one thing; building a lasting family business is something else altogether. And sometimes the things that make one work can ultimately make the other fail.

Looking at the human side of managing a family business, Jane Adams asks, “When you boil it all down to the essence, where do most family business conflicts really start? A surprisingly large percentage have to do, ultimately, with ‘boundary issues.’”

Adams, a Seattle-based business coach, says boundaries are found everywhere. They separate our thoughts from our feelings, our impulses from our fantasies. And they structure relationships between people.

“They are the line between where you end and I begin,” she says. “While they are essentially mental structures, they are as real as a fence or a border. If we ignore them, we’re in danger of being enmeshed and swallowed, or so disconnected that no real relationship can exist.”

Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in a family business is tricky. “Everyone plays multiple roles as a family member and as part of the business, thus opening many opportunities for boundary confusion, trespass and conflict,’ she says, “particularly when outdated roles and unresolved conflicts from one domain seep into the other.”

That’s because the boundary between past and present is always with us, and the boundaries set when children were young can color relationships when they’re adults. By that, she means that often, we were assigned certain roles as the family grew and matured – the   tattletale, the peacemaker, the screw-up. These can color the way other family members and even long-time employees see a person today, through a lens that’s been obsolete for years.

Another boundary that’s often ignored in the family business is the one between fairness and equality, she says. Although we want to treat our children equally, a standard of fairness should apply in the business. And what’s equal may not be fair.

“Fair is also knowing when it’s time to turn in the keys and letting the generation that’s expected to take over the business do it while they’re still young and motivated,” she says. “Founders who are reluctant to turn over power lose the moment when their kids were optimally able to take over; their children are so tired of waiting for authority, control and power, and the opportunity to make their mark, that by the time that happens, they’ve moved on. They may stay in the business, but their energy has been drained out of them.”

However, she says one of the most crucial boundaries for a family business is the line between family and business. The needs of each are different and so are most of the rules, both spoken and unspoken, that guide behavior in each realm.

That means, she says, that a strong, well-defined boundary between them is the single biggest determinant of how the family will transition the business into the second, third and fourth generations. “In fact, a written, codified boundary statement is as important to a family business as a mission statement – while the latter sets a standard for what the company believes in and stands for, the former establishes one for the family as well.”

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