A Little Known Cause for a Family Business Conflict

Posted by Rock LaManna on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 @ 09:07 AM

A little known cause for a family business conflict resized 600

Psychologists are familiar with the term “transference,” but most owners don’t realize this is often the cause of a family business conflict.  It’s a problem they don’t teach you about in business school, yet affects owners, vendors and employees.

Tom Hubler, the LaManna Alliance family business guru, explained that transference is a psychoanalytic term that refers to the cases where a client responds to a consultant in an inappropriate way because of an event that has occurred in the past.

For example, an accountant is having a meeting with a family business owner, and asks the owner if he’s been doing any type of financial reporting.  The owner suddenly turns red in the face and tells the accountant not to question how he runs the business; then abruptly cancels the meeting.  The accountant leaves the room bewildered; he’s been the victim of transference.

What the accountant doesn’t realize is a conflict from the owner’s past is troubling him.  The owner, who was never very good with numbers, was constantly belittled by his father for his poor accounting skills.  The father used to own the business, and he always made it a point to demean his son in front of co-workers for his shortcomings.

Cut to the present day.  The owner is transferring that unresolved conflict with his father onto his accountant.  This is an example of transference, and according to Tom, it occurs “all the time.”

The Debilitating Results of Transference

Emotional family business conflicts result in irrational behavior and uncertainty within the organization.  In the example we mention here, the accountant is trying to help the owner improve his quantitative reporting so they can effectively improve business processes.

The owner, however, is prevented from progressing on this vital topic because it inspires negative emotions.  The accountant, now fearful that mentioning the issue again will provoke another reaction, keeps quiet – and this critical business issue remains unresolved.

Transference occurs between clients and vendors, as well as between co-workers in family business.  In the majority of these cases, it continues unresolved because people like our poor accountant don’t have the professional training to resolve the issue.  “You have to separate yourself,” Hubler said.  “It takes enormous practice to do this.”

Getting to a place of “emotional neutrality” is second-nature to a psychologist, but most professionals are ill-prepared for dealing with issues like transference.  In fact, Hubler points out that it’s common for all professionals to fall into the trap.  In fact, there is also counter-transference, in which the vendor or professional starts to treat the client in an inappropriate way based on an event from their past.

Staying Clear of the Emotional Landmines

How do you avoid these kinds of emotional confrontations?  We are human.  It’s impossible not to talk to a client and/or a co-worker and touch upon some sort of issue that could inspire transference.  “The question is around boundaries,” Hubler notes.  “It’s about what’s appropriate and what’s not.”  

Here some tips for avoiding transference:

Go to competent people.  If you have a personal problem, don’t expect your accountant to solve it.  Consult with a trained professional who can help you resolve the issue.  Not only will your accountant be unable to help you, you might inspire your own transference and cause the accountant to act irrationally as well.

Choose a team to deal with the technical issues of your business – IT, Finance, Marketing – but then enlist the services of a professional to help you through the emotional problems.

Avoid hoarding your clients.  If you’re a vendor and you’re experiencing transference with your client, don’t try to solve the problem on your own.  Many vendors think that by helping their client through an issue, they will inspire greater loyalty.  That may be true, but only if you help the client by referring their issue to a professional qualified to provide the necessary guidance.  Trying to be the vendor who handles all the problems – even the emotional ones – is a recipe for disaster.

Understand the four rules of professionals.  Tom explained there are four skills a professional needs to exhibit to avoid transference:

1. Ability to know what you think.  You have to separate yourself from the whole, and think your own individual thoughts.  You can be a team player, but always maintain your own, independent thoughts.

2. Have the capacity to manage increasing levels of discomfort in important relationships.  Handle problems and confrontation without getting blown out of the water.  Deal with the problems and people’s differences while still maintaining relationships.

3. Live with emotional differences between important others.  Similar to #2 – even if things aren’t going well, stay connected with others.

4. Know your role in relationships that are deteriorating. Understand how you fit in the relationships, and be sure you’re not going above and beyond what is required.

Tom included a few typical situations that involve transference.  Do you see yourself stuck in one of these?  

Situation Cause Handling

A client is suddenly angry when you bring up something you think is innocuous.

The client may be reacting to unfinished emotional issues from the past and transferring them to you as if you were that person from the past.

You can begin by diffusing the situation. Apologize (even though you don't know what you did). Explore from the client's perspective what was so significant (objectionable, irritating).  Stay calm; don't overract.

You are in the middle of a discussion between a father and a son. The father invites you to comment on his assessment that his son is "a lazy bum" and not able to do his job.

In cases much like this I have observed that typically there is no job description, training or career plan for the next generation.

You might suggest that a leadership plan should be created. It should include psychological testing to determine an appropriate career and leadership plan for the son. Having a trained family business consultant would clearly add value to this situation.

Normal business or financial differences are eroding a father-son or family relationship.

Business or family tensions are spilling over into family gatherings, holidays or other events, perhaps prompting painful arguments over whose idea is best (right versus wrong). Tension can progress to silent suffering so that family outings and activities are not "spoiled."

Supporting and even facilitating family meetings can do wonders to strengthen person-to-person relationships. In fact, it has been proved that when a family business has regular family meetings, they outperform the S&P 500. Family business consultants with a psychological background conduct those meetings with ease.

Remember Tom’s four rules of professionals as you deal with issues of transference.  Most importantly, know your limits in these areas.  You owe it to yourself and your client when you’re getting sucked in to issues that are over your head.  The sooner you ask for help, the longer you’re going to keep a client.


Photo by:  Tambako the Jaguar.


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