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The Genogram - A Tool to Understand Family Relationships

Harmonious, cohesive family relationships result in “familiness” or unique “family capital” that serves as an important strategic competitive advantage for family owned businesses.
In order to develop an effectively functioning family team, there are several questions that need to be addressed, like:

How can we as a family, objectively examine our nature of relationships that can help us arrive at various strengths or/and challenges?

What can be done to help us work together more effectively as business owners and managers?

Are there any behavioral patterns that our family members share across generations as a collective social unit?

How do the various members relate to each other? Do we have a shared understanding about our family and our roots?

How close are the relationships in each generation and how have these impacted the various decisions in the family business?

The Bowen Systemic Theory by Dr. Murray Brown explains that the nature of a family is such that its members are intensely connected emotionally. People may feel sometimes distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support, and they react to each other’s needs, expectations, and opinions. This connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in their degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree.

Business families can greatly benefit by the knowledge of how this emotional system influences one’s personality, work, and social relationships.

According to Dr. Randel S. Carlock (researcher, faculty and author in Family Business), it becomes easier for a business family to explore their family’s patterns of behavior with tools that help them gather and analyze information.

One such useful tool is called a genogram. The genogram is a type of expanded family tree that helps business families develop a shared picture of how their families work. The family of origin is the greatest influence every individual experiences from birth, so these diagrams help become acquainted with the system structure and the storytelling of the lives of the individuals collectively as a family (Guillermo Salazar, FFI Practitioner)

The genogram helps a family see and appreciate how family members relate to each other and where functioning could be more effective. The family business genogram works on three levels:

Documenting family experiences (births, deaths, marriages, educational achievements)

Describing the family structure (position and power)

Assessing the family’s interpersonal relationships (close, distant, conflicted etc.)

Families might also fill in a business timeline, providing a context for the family’s development based on critical business events. Talking about these business events often prompts the family to share stories that explain decision making and how family members work together on important tasks.

Working together to construct a genogram creates a deeper and shared understanding of their family system. The genogram exercise, facilitated by a trained professional adviser, helps business families develop a working knowledge of the different factors that influence family functioning.

Questions like “Who are most alike personality-wise in each generation?”; “Which names repeat within the family?”; “What was the historical, economic and social context surrounding a given event?”; “Who are the entrepreneurs in the family?”; “What do they know about their grandparents’ lives?”; “What role have women played in their family’s history?”; can help them find the keys to untangling the origins of behaviors which are no longer currently justified and which need to be overcome as lessons learned. Discussing the family system through the genogram also develops the family’s ability to communicate.

Benefits of a well-crafted genogram:

  • Helps in objective and time-to-time assessment of the current nature of relationships as well as to discover dysfunctional/undesirable generational patterns, stereotypes, communication styles etc. that might be preventing effective collaboration within the family
  • Useful tool in succession planning and anticipating various challenges during generational transitions
  • For specific interventions – it can provide a starting point to uncover underlying tensions, trust issues, communication gaps etc. between individuals or family branches that can potentially cause disputes in future.

“A tool to spark a meaningful family dialogue”, Randel S. Carlock, Family Business Magazine
“Working with family diagrams in family business reflections from 20 years of practice, Guillermo Salazar, FFI Practitioner
Research in Bowen Theory, The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family

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