The Center for Family Systems Theory offers consulting services in the family systems model to work systems that are in transition or conflict. The theory is particularly applicable to:
1) Family Businesses
2) Communities of Faith (e.g. Churches, Synagogues, Temples, Mosques, etc.)
3) Not-for-profit agencies
1) Family Business Consulting
No one would deny that there is a financial side to every business. Neither would anyone refute that there is a legal side, a human resources side or a philanthropic side to each successful business venture. However, some may be surprised to learn that there is also an emotional side to every business – especially a family enterprise.
Michele Conlin, a regular contributor to BusinessWeek magazine, may have captured the idea that there is an emotional side to every family business when she wrote:
“Boardroom disagreements can parallel spats at the dinner table.”1
Unresolved issues from home inevitably get duplicated in the family business. Until those issues are resolved, they will move from generation to generation. This helps to explain why, according to John Ward’s 1987 seminal study on family firm succession, only 13% of family owned businesses survive to the third generation.2
The emotional side of a family business is an even more crucial issue when we realize that these ventures are a powerful part of the vast American business complex. Family Enterprise USA estimates there are 5l5 million family businesses in the United State, contributing 57 percent of the GNP and employing 98 million people. That’s about 63% of the total workforce.3
Family Systems Theory and Family Business
Family Systems Theory, or Bowen Theory as it is often called, is a unique way of thinking about any network of interlocking relationships – a multigenerational family, an educational institution, a community of faith or a family owned business. The theory was developed by professionals who were no longer satisfied with the medical model and its “diagnose and prescribe” approach to mental health.
Family Systems Theory embodies Dr. Murray Bowen’s effort to develop a science of human behavior rooted in evolutionary biology. The principles of the theory are applicable to any family firm that is dealing with any inter-personal issue especially those family enterprises that are navigating the delicate transition from one generation to the next.
The theory is rooted in the principle called “Differentiation of Self,” or, simply put, a person’s ability to work on his/her own emotional maturity. Founding father Murray Bowen, MD puts it this way:
When any key member of an emotional system can control his own emotional reactivity and accurately observe the functioning of the system and his part in it, and he can avoid counter attacking when he is provoked, and when he can maintain an active relationship with the other key members without withdrawing or becoming silent, the entire system will change in a series of predictable steps.4
John Engels, president of Leadership Coaching, Inc., makes it perfectly clear:
…families who cannot manage their intense emotional attachments while working side-by-side can both imperil the family business and harm the family unit.5
Classic Examples of Family Business Challenges
Bowen Family Systems Theory could be an invaluable resource for Bill, Susan and Jack who find themselves in situations that are classic examples of family business challenges.
- Bill, who was “pickled in the middle” between his mother and father while growing up, is now the CEO of the company that his father founded. He regularly finds himself triangulated between his CFO and COO who will not speak to each other. These “emotional triangles” are as ubiquitous in a family business as they are dangerous. Being coached by a family systems consultant helped Bill think differently about his family’s business. Understanding just how triangles are created, Bill was able to show his CFO and COO how to communicate with each other like professionals, hold them accountable for their behavior and reduce his own anxiety. Within six months productivity was up and his CFO and COO asked him if they could be the co-chairpersons of the annual golf tournament.
- Susan – a perfectionist, first-born daughter – serves as the first female president of her family’s business. She is constantly frustrated by her younger brother who comes to work late, leaves early and loves to “do business” on the golf course. This “over-functioning / under-functioning” situation can breed resentment, sabotage and serious damage to the bottom line. “Thinking systems” was invaluable to Susan. Under the tutelage of The Center for Family Systems Theory, she learned how her eagerness to do things for her brother that he could and should do for himself – overfunctioning – enabled him to under-function, a dynamic that had been going on since they were kids. Her ability to “think systems” improved her relationship with her brother at home and at work. Their new, improved relationship also enhanced the bottom line in the family business.
- Jack, heir apparent to his family’s business, wanted to introduce new ideas he learned while earning his MBA at one of the nations most prestigious (and expensive) universities in the country. John, his father, built the family business on a simple business model: my way or the highway. When Jack made a suggestion John often raised his voice to a level that literally cleared the room. Whenever his father acted this way, Jack avoided his dad, his father pouted and important decisions got postponed indefinitely. When he began to study his family-of-origin with Dr. Perelli, Jack learned that his dad became angry and uncommunicative because that was the way his grandfather treated his father. Now, when John shuts down after a disagreement, Jack stays appropriately close to his dad. Sometimes it is as simple as asking his dad to go out to lunch after a squabble. Inevitably, what couldn’t be resolved in the office gets resolved in a diner over a beef on weck. By dealing with this emotional issue between Jack and his dad, the succession plan went better than everyone expected.
Family issues like succession planning, conflicts between co-workers who are related, bad feelings that move from one generation to the next and emotional triangles are not always easy to decipher. Nor can they be solved by firing the troublemaker, waiting for the problem to go away by itself or fighting fire with fire. The antidote can be found in an evidence-based theory rooted in evolutionary biology – Family Systems Theory.
A Resource for Family Businesses in Western New York
Since 2004, The Center for Family Systems Theory of WNY, Inc. has provided consulting to companies that are facing issues rooted in the emotional side of a family business. The Center’s founder, Dr. Robert J. Perelli, CJM has been a student of Family Systems Theory since 1985 and has provided training and consulting services in the northeast and southwest United States and the Philippines. Over the past 30 years he has become a trusted and confidential advisor to hundreds of families in need of counseling and countless family businesses seeking consulting.
Unlike traditional psychological theory that views problems as flaws in the individual, Family Systems Theory sees individual functioning and human relationships in terms of a multi-generational family system. The Center has counseled many businesses by tapping into the wisdom and science of “systems thinking.”
Leaders in family business seek out The Center for Family Systems Theory for assistance with issues like:
- the successful transition of leadership to a next generation family member or to a non-family leader
- transitioning to new leadership while preserving the Mission, Vision and Values of the family business
- developing emotional maturity within the leadership team of a family business
- training leaders to identify and work with over-functioners and under-functioners in order to increase communication, teamwork and collaboration.
To learn more about how family systems theory impacts your business, contact Dr. Robert J. Perelli at 716.886.4594.
1Conlon, Michele. BusinessWeek, May 10, 2004
2John Ward’s (1987) seminal study on family firm succession was the first and still remains the most influential to put a number to the rate of success in intra-family business succession. Family business consultants and popular press journalists quote Ward’s statistic that 30% of firms survive through the second generation, 13% survive the third generation, and only 3% survive beyond that.
3Engles, John. Rochester Business Journal, June 12, 2018
4Bowen, Murray and Kerr, Michael. Family Evaluation. Norton, 1988.
5Engels, John. Rochester Business Journal. June 12, 2018
“When any key member of an emotional system can control his own emotional reactivity and accurately observe the functioning of the system and his part in it, and he can avoid counter attacking when he is provoked, and when he can maintain an active relationship with the other key members without withdrawing or becoming silent, the entire system will change in a series of predictable steps.”
–Murray Bowen, MD