The Hidden Values In Family Meetings
29th May 2017 Barbara R Hauser and Professor Dennis Jaffe
Barbara R Hauser and Professor Dennis Jaffe uncover nine hidden benefits of family meetings that strengthen both the family itself and its business.
Families that meet together stay together. In our work with families from Asia and Australia to Saudi Arabia, that is the advice we have given. Recently, we have been mulling over various benefits of family meetings that usually go unnoticed but that are actually among the highest-value results of those meetings.
Communicating, through a family meeting, what is being done, why and how enables family members to feel a greater sense of security
Consider what is involved in a family deciding to meet. Usually, its members have encountered an issue that needs group consensus, but they do not have a method in place to make the necessary decisions. Someone in the family is likely to take the lead in suggesting that they hire a professional advisor to get them started in developing a better governance system.
Once they agree to meet, they are, with the help of the advisor, likely to have a written agenda to work on. But what will be the impact of having those family meetings? We suggest it will probably be greater than the family members, and the advisor, expect. Below, we list nine important ways in which meetings strengthen the family.
A sense of belonging
Feeling that you belong to a group that knows and cares about you is one of the most basic human needs. Just consider how, all around the world, those who do wrong are expelled, banished, ostracised, disinherited, excommunicated, put in solitary confinement and so on. A Navajo expression of sorrow is to 'sleep outside the net'. Families that come together welcome each person at the table: they each belong.
Furthering family identity
Many people today belong to an extended, often dispersed family. Shared family identity is the glue that holds it together. Family identity is made up of legacy values, and new values that emerge as the family adapts and changes across generations. Identity is not a given and is not constant.
We have seen the third or fourth generation - young people with incredible talents and experience - getting to know each other at a family meeting, and discovering how much they have in common and how much they can offer each other. Without taking the time for a meeting out of their busy lives, they would not have discovered that, and, therefore, would feel less reason to participate in the family business and financial affairs.
Many advisors who facilitate family meetings begin with a set of communication rules that everyone must follow. Built into each one of those rules is respect for each other. To avoid interrupting someone is to show respect for them. In many cases, while family members assume they know each other, they often have not learned to listen to what each other has to say, so they do not really know each other very well.
Family cultures vary. We have seen French families demonstrate respect for very young children, whose opinions are encouraged and listened to at the dinner table. These children are raised with the sense that others will respect their opinions, and they, in turn, will solicit and respect the opinions of others.
Family members in wealthy families are often extraordinarily sensitive to slights, and may feel that other family members are disrespectful or arrogant. Meetings, with rules of communication, allow family members to develop the ability to listen and learn from each other.
Trust is not a feeling; it is the result of a set of clear practices and experiences. Trust stems from several qualities in a relationship: honesty, dependability, transparency, emotional authenticity, competency and empathy. These qualities reveal themselves through relationships. When people listen to each other and share positive experiences, they tend to develop greater trust.
When a family meets, its members can talk about what is intended, and acknowledge when the intention is different than the effect. Trust becomes part of a relationship that can be repaired and strengthened. For example, in one family, many members were concerned that their family enterprise seemed to generate no profit to distribute to the family members; they distrusted the competence of the third-generation family leaders. The accountability of the leaders to the family was not clear and, until there were family meetings, this issue was not publicly aired.
Sense of security
Business families have a lot of wealth and assets, and they delegate decisions and management responsibility to family leaders and non-family executives. When other family members do not know what their leader and designated managers are up to, they can become anxious. Often, families send out an unspoken message to others that they cannot ask questions and cannot discuss certain issues, such as salaries, distributions or business decisions. Since family members often depend for all or part of their livelihood on family resources, their lack of knowledge can lead them to feel anxious and unsafe, leading to conflict.
Communicating, through a family meeting, what is being done, why and how enables family members to feel a greater sense of security. If they can ask questions, and discover to their satisfaction what is going on in the family enterprise, what they learn can create feelings of safety and diminish suspicion.
Families that succeed over generations have the ability to adapt and change, not just in their business but in how they manage their personal relations.
Young family members learn important new ideas at school and in their experiences at work. They are often excited about what they are learning and want to share it with their family. However, they also often feel that their new ideas are not respected, desired or welcome.
As the elders of a family become set in their ways, a family meeting can prove refreshing by inviting members of newer generations, including spouses who marry into the family, to offer fresh ideas and perspectives, as they contribute to and find roles in the family. When the family shares ideas and the elders listen, the family can decide to travel on new paths, enriching it in multiple ways. The meeting lets new ideas be shared and explored, and also allows the family to make them practical and reflect the family's accumulated wisdom and experience.
Learning and role models
A family meeting is a place where individual family members can learn about new possibilities from each other. Family members often live far apart and younger members do not know each other well. When there is a meeting, the family can bring in resources, and talk about what each person is learning and about new things they can do together. Together, they build an enriched family as they learn together.
A good meeting is one where everyone comes out with something that they did not expect or know before.
It is often hard for people, especially family members who are expected to be wise leaders, to admit they need help. By having a meeting and being open to new ideas, the stage is set for advisors to share what they have learned from working with many families, and to discuss some ways in which the family might move forward. Advisors can raise issues about which family members feel reticent, and do it in a non-judgmental way by saying something like: 'I wonder if you have considered this...'
When the family leaders invite advisors to help the family and the family meetings, younger family members learn that requesting help is a permitted behaviour.
Growing up in a successful family can be daunting. Young people are reluctant to speak up because they may be in awe of or fear their elders. They are concerned that nothing they do can compare with the achievements of their parents or grandparents, yet they hunger to do something for the family.
A family meeting is a place where younger family members can be invited to participate, to do something that serves the family. For example, some members of younger generations have been able to create legacy projects, where they interview their elders or help the family use social media to communicate.
Family meetings reinforce the resiliency of the family. Through the benefits listed above, they support the growth of children who become confident and competent. They have been listened to, respected, trusted and encouraged.