The reality of attachment theory in family business

Family business is unique in so many areas that we sometimes forget to acknowledge what is really driving the behaviour of family members. This article will put forward one area that is common across all family businesses, all generations and all nationalities – ATTACHMENT.

This behavioural theory is normally expressed in describing the attachment of a mother to a child especially when undertaking activities that temporarily “break this bond” such as enrolling into Child Care or School for the first time. The “separation anxiety” that is experienced is real and includes fear, guilt and doubt.

How is this relevant to families in business and how does it apply?

As technology, especially in the health / allied health industries, progresses humans are living longer resulting in an emerging trend where it is becoming common to have four generations involved in the family business. This extremely wide spread within the family demographics also comes with its inherently different inter-generational perspectives on life, business and society in general. However, one thing that is common throughout these generations is their “attachment” to the family, the family business, family values and that critical component, the family legacy.

When family business “outsiders” i.e. professional services, financiers, consultants and independent Directors start to discuss “succession” or “handing over the batten”, it is normally directed at the older generation in favour of, yet in the absence of, the younger generation. These conversations are difficult at the best of times therefore, not to take into account the “attachment” the older generation has to the business creates fear, lack of value, feelings of diminished worth and a myriad of other internalised feelings.

But what is the family member attached to? This is complex and in the vast majority of instances not to the actual business at all.

What, I hear you say, not the business! No, not the business – Rather it is the effort (heart and soul) that has been put in to build and / or diversify the business. It is attachment to the supply chain (up-stream, down-stream, internal and allied) and it is attachment to the businesses reputation as part of the family’s external legacy. In addition, it is attachment to the projects that the business has delivered to the client and / or community.

This attachment is deep seated in all generations of the family therefore to ignore it or “gloss over” it when transferring the family business ALWAYS result in increased dysfunction that is completely understandable and completely relevant.

It also impacts on the incoming generations just as intensely because this generation has a different perspective, as it should, yet has the family attachments that drive them to perform for the sake of the business. This generation “attaches” to the business through the succession process with enthusiasm, passion, apprehension, obligation and expectation. All of these feelings have to be mentored, guided and managed therefore the family requires “outsiders” to understand, acknowledge and respect these behaviours and add value to the family business through the provision of timely and relevant advice.

Here is a snapshot on how this attachment can be acknowledged successfully

Oldest generation moves from mentor to family business ambassador with an emphasis on the family segments

Mature generation moves from management / leadership to family business mentor with equal emphasis on the family segment, critical stakeholders and the current generation

Current generation moves from line management into senior management and leadership of the family business and supply chain of the business

Incoming / younger generation assumes roles of supervision and line management with an emphasis on learning the purpose of the family business and to gain the respect of the businesses supply chain

By adopting this style of approach all family members will remain “attached” to the entire family business YET retain a sense of worth, feel values and critically, continue to contribute to the family values and family legacy to achieve family business longevity.

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