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The Nature of Family ties in Family Business

Family structure determines the ways in which family members interact and relate to one another. They reflect the degree to which individual family members are emotionally connected to one another and comprise a kind of “Social network” that organizes family relationships. A part of each family’s internal structure or organization is a system of “boundaries - the invisible barriers” that determine family member’s emotional distance from each other and from the outside world.

Families display varying degrees of cohesiveness. Some families become so attached and depended at an emotional level, or “enmeshed,” that they lose a sense of individual boundaries. In these families, boundaries between individuals tend to be more permeable and less rigid, while boundaries between the family and the outside world are less flexible and more rigid. This is in contrast to “disengaged” families.

Key Attributes:

Enmeshed Families

Family members rely on each other for a wide range of needs.

Each individual’s activities tend to be known and discussed by other members. Keeping something private is seen as a withholding act.

Everyone seeks advice from other family members, particularly on important life decisions.

The level of emotion can be very high.

Disengaged Families

Family members value independence, privacy and individualism.

Members share limited information about each other and they avoid interfering in each other’s thoughts, decisions or actions.

The boundaries between individuals tend to be more clearly drawn, they tend to reach out to people outside the immediate family / friends with ease than members within the family.

The level of emotion can be low.

Most families fall between the two extremes. However, those at the extremes of enmeshment or disengagement are at risk of being unhealthy, unproductive or dysfunctional.

  • A family that is too enmeshed may discourage individual members’ autonomous exploration and mastery of new skills.

  • An extremely disengaged family, in contrast, may develop members who have a strong sense of independence but lack a capacity for interdependence.

Many families go through both enmeshed and disengaged cycles depending upon children’s ages or the parent’s stages in life. For example, Families with very young children may be more enmeshed and move toward greater disengagement as the children grow up.

The nature of family structure & cohesiveness has major day-to-day impact on how families work together and solve problems. Father might talk to his sons about business, and only to his daughters about emotional matters. The mother might be heard by others on issues of personal health or conduct, but her advice on careers or business issues might be disregarded. This results in different decision making patterns around different family themes. The mother and father might have long discussions about health worries, but they might not be open to discuss this with their children.

The attributes of both enmeshed and disengaged families have their own pros and cons. However, it is important for the business family to understand the extent of cohesiveness / disengagement that they experience at the moment and to ascertain if that is serving as a key advantage or disadvantage. It is important to understand that family harmony does not indicate an absence of disagreements or conflicts. Rather, it indicates the family’s ability to finely balance between diverse personalities, disagreements, emotional states and relationships.

Such harmonious and cohesive family relationships translate into “familiness” or unique “family capital” that serves as an important strategic competitive advantage. It is manifested when members of the family share a common vision and purpose, transact with high levels of trust, demonstrate cooperation and commitment, share a collective identity and experience a sense of belonging to the family. Therefore, when each family member strives to develop as many authentic, one-to-one relationships with other family members as possible, the family capital serves as a driving force to build successful multi-generational enterprises.

Book ‘How Families work Together’, authored by Mary F. Whitefield (Ph.d), Craig E. Aronoff (Ph.d) and John L. Ward (Ph.d) and published by Family Enterprise Publisher.

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