Communication People Matters

50 Common Causes Of Family Business Conflict – #12 Broken Wing Syndrome (Parents & Family)

Broken Wing Syndrome #1 (Individuals)‘ posited that Emotional Resilience is the personal ability to cope with, and adapt to, challenging situations. Hence resilient individuals, both consciously and unconsciously, tend to minimise their anxiety to remain personally, socially and vocationally effective.

Broken Wing Syndrome (“BWS”) refers to non-resilient individuals, and specifically to those working in a family business, where their weaknesses (broken wings) attract well-meaning support from parents and other family members, in ways that are inappropriate, and ultimately unhelpful, to the family and the business.

BWS #2 describes the effects of BWS on Parents & Family.

Almost invariably, BWS presents as a cross-gender phenomenon. Dad protects a vulnerable daughter; Mum protects a vulnerable son. I’m sure the psychs would have a theory for why that is!

The problem with BWS #2 lies in the fact that only one parent is signed up to protect. The other parent is either passive, or non-supportive, and this is a common cause of conflict between such parents. Character differences, and old resentments over the impact of the family business on family life, surface in earnest and the child with a broken wing becomes a catalyst, or a proxy, that encourages the parents to work out their personal frustrations with each other, and with their overall situation.

Because these tensions often erupt during a succession process, when the stresses of transitioning ownership, leadership and management of business assets are at their greatest, they have the potential to derail, or at least substantially delay, the entire succession process.

In addition to observing a cause of conflict between parents, BWS #2 identifies fault lines that arise in families as a result of:

(a) working family members having long-term broken wings that affect their performance in the business and,

(b) conflict generated between parents, who should be enjoying greater peace and harmony and,

(c) the impact on other working family members who are increasingly disturbed by negative effects on the business and,

(d) the overall unfairness of the situation.

BWS generates conflict amongst other siblings and close family members, who may be divided into different camps, depending on whether they: work in the business and see the direct impacts of BWS, or sit outside the business, and have “business-first” attitudes, or are naturally more nurturing, and have “family-first” attitudes.


The starting point for resolving most family business problems is to regard them as just that: problems to be solved, rather than as people to be saved.

It’s neither practical, nor realistically possible, to eliminate all emotion from a family business problem workout however, in the final analysis, key stakeholders and decision-makers need solutions that are both emotionally satisfying and commercially practical, in and out of the family and the business.

Start by dealing with the emotional issues, a least to the point where you can have relatively calm, adult conversations with all the key players. Only then move on to deal with practical, rational, financial and  commercial issues. This requires two separate lines of thinking and communication, each with their own distinct pace, criteria and language. The basic sequence is: Emotional >>>>> Rational.

In addition to the primary players, include “significant others” in the process. Try to enrol them as active allies. If that doesn’t work, at least keep them adequately informed to ensure they don’t derail your efforts to resolve the situation. Leaving people in the dark encourages them to join the wrong dots together – and to make things worse.

Follow a logical problem-solving process to analyse the current situation and develop some potentially workable solutions.

Separate individual needs and capabilities from family needs and capabilities, and separate both from business requirements. Separation of thought and decision-making processes helps to avoid the confused thinking that results from corrupting commercial/rational thinking with emotion-laden, family thinking (confusing the dinner table with the board room table).

As with all problem-solving exercises, commit to getting an outcome, whatever that turns out to be. It’s always better to make a “wise” decision and manage the consequences than avoid arriving at, and implementing, a conclusion.

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