Two-way communication, with both parties able to express themselves on the most
deep-rooted issues and really hear the other, is key to change in a family
business. That was the central point of John Messervey's address to the Family
Business center, September 9, 1997 at the Springfield Sheraton.
Messervey, of the National Family Business Council in Lake Forest, Illinois,
believes that nearly every family business will benefit by change&emdash;and
that those who attended are ready to catalyze that process: "You are here
because you want something to change."
The specifics will vary from business to business; in recent cases, Messervey
encountered these desires: a son wanted his father to invest in a new project; a
mother was accused by her child of meddling; a sibling looked for ways to
prevent his brother from antagonizing key employees; another sibling was asked
to "quit pretending she's working."
Messervey's analysis concentrated on the family, which he sees as "the prototype
for all organization; business patterns are just an extension" of the roles
played out in family dynamics. In every family there will be "customers for
change"&emdash;those who stand to benefit from upsetting the applecart, often
the family scapegoats or those who feel disenfranchised. But there are also
"guardians of the status quo," who like things just the way they are and
vigorously protect their turf. One of Messervey's clients compared change in his
family to "bowling in sand."
Every family has its own set of myths, roles, and rules or customs. But at the
same time, there are "secrets" and "unspeakables"; these hidden shames are the
action points for change
To demonstrate, Messervey showed a short clip from "Prince of Tides," showing a
sharply dysfunctional family. Nick Nolte plays a husband who blocks his wife's
every attempt to bring up important issues. But at the same time, he and his own
mother have some serious unfinished business to take care of&emdash;deep and
dark "unspeakables"&emdash;which causes every interaction between them to run up
against a wall of mutual hostility.
In Nolte's fictional family, as in any other, those who are ignored find a way
to act out and be noticed. And since family members know better than anyone else
how to hit the "hot buttons" that will get a reaction from other family members,
the stakes can be pretty high. When you know how to get someone really furious,
you run the risk of starting a long-lasting feud that could run for decades. But
Messervey comments, "they must have really cared for each other; you don't fight
if you don't care."
He believes many of the silly disagreements among family members are "to add
heat. Over time, all relationships cool." These little sparks are a way to keep
the relationship fresh and interesting, even after a half-century or more, as
Messervey demonstrated with a second video clip, from "For Better or For
Worse"&emdash;where, despite 56 years of happy marriage, a couple still can't
let go of an ancient minor argument.
But that family was able to openly air their disagreement. In families with
deeper problems, attempts at communication are continuously rebuffed. Messervey
quoted sociologist Carl Whittaker's book, The Family Crucible:
Why, in spite of a genuine desire to change, does a family hold back???If a
family has tried repeatedly to change and has met only pain and failure, making
still another attempt can have frightening overtones??What if they really
try&emdash;and fail again? What is left except utter despair? The family cringes
in fear; they fight against the change which they know they must attempt.
But don't confuse fear by disempowered family members of initiating change with
resistance to change by those who will lose power: that resistance, says
Messervey, is a sign that things are working. Change is imminent and the
guardians of the status quo are desperately trying to block it. They feel the
pressure, the need to acknowledge the issues; the call for change can no longer
be simply swept under the rug. In fact, the rug is bulging so high off the
floor&emdash;to stretch the metaphor a bit farther&emdash;that someone had
better do something before there's a liability suit to contend with.
Some families have ignored so many little issues that, like a dense forest that
needs a huge fire to clean out the underbrush, they really need