Does Your Family Business Suffer from the “Elephant in the Room Syndrome?

by | May 11, 2010

Our guest blogger this month is Lauren Owen, family business consultant and founder of Lauren Owen LLC.  She will be co-presenting our seminar “Managing Family Business Relationships” on May 19.  Learn more.


The dynamics of a family business can sometimes cause what we call the “elephant in the room syndrome: unspoken topics that no one wants to address. Managing family business relationships with people who are also related to one another can create stresses and hurt feelings that build up over time. Prior relationship issues that go unresolved can get carried forward and magnified. 

A family business that suffers from poor communication about basic issues will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make good decisions on future strategic goals for the company, including determining a succession plan for transferring ownership from one generation to the next.

If your family business suffers from this syndrome, here are some suggestions:

  1. There must be a commitment among all family members to improve inter-family communication. If the family is not in agreement, it usually signals there is an “unspoken” issue that must be identified and resolved first.
  2. Consider bringing in an outside facilitator skilled in working with family members who can help identify, surface, and resolve unspoken issues in a safe environment. It’s important that this outside person been seen as an advocate for the family and business as a whole and not just as “dad’s” or “daughter’s” person.
  3. Agree to an ongoing list of ground rules of communication. Examples of ground rules include: definite starting and ending times for family meetings, agendas that are published in advance with input of the attendees, no one speaks until the presenter has completed his/her entire thoughts, and everyone’s opinion is respected and listened to. A good outside facilitator can help establish, model, and “enforce” ground rules.
  4. Some other items to consider to assist with opening family communication:
    Do all family members in the business know exactly what their duties are and what they are or are not responsible for? Have all family members been given the opportunity to give input to decisions in the company? Is there respect and trust for one another? Are there performance standards and accountability? Are there extended family issues that are entering into the business decisions?
  5. Once the communication lines are open and in good working order, then start tackling the tough discussions and decisions on strategic management and succession issues.
  6. Have these decisions “codified” through a well-thought out shareholders’ agreement, company by-laws, and employment and operating agreement. (See last week’s blog post.)