Communication People Matters

50 Common Causes Of Family Business Conflict – #13 Broken Wing Syndrome

Article 11: “Broken Wing Syndrome #1 (Individuals)”, described Emotional Resilience as a person’s ability to cope with, and adapt to, challenging situations. Resilient individuals minimise their anxiety, consciously and unconsciously, to remain personally, socially and vocationally effective.

A non-resilient individual is less able to handle challenges and stress, hence their “broken wing”. They require abnormal, objectively inappropriate levels of support and protection to survive, especially if they’re in an important, pressured, commercially sensitive, role.

BWS #1 describes the causes and effects of BWS on Individuals, in the context of family business conflict.

Article 12: “Broken Wing Syndrome #2 (Parents & Family)”, explained why, when a non-resilient individual’s weakness (broken wing) attracts well-meaning support from parents, and sometimes from other family members, the results can seriously backfire on both the Parents and the Family.

BWS #2 describes the causes and effects of BWS on Parents & Family, in the context of family business conflict.

BWS #3: Family Business provides the perfect pressure pot for brewing BWS toxins. If ordinary business is challenging, family business is challenging at a whole extra level, due to the natural conflict between essence of family (nurturing), and essence of business (competition and performance). Most of the more damaging conflicts that arise in family business are a result of confusing family-think, with business-think, within business operations.

When a family member with a broken wing is safely cemented into an important role in the business where, despite their manifest and repeated performance failures, they continue to enjoy secure employment and levels of remuneration that do not reflect their limited contribution to the business, the business will inevitably suffer as a direct consequence of their performance failures.

As front line managers, these individuals frequently alienate competent staff who feel frustrated by the mismatch between the authority they wield and the competence they display. Such staff often find themselves blamed for the failings of the broken winged family member – coming from the individuals themselves, or from parents/owners – replete with profound denials of the real causes of the relevant performance failures.

If the broken winged individual holds an executive role, such as marketing director, look for an engineered failure of the sort of accountability that should be demanded by a competent board for acceptable executive performance. It will be the result of pressure exerted by an overly protective parent, and it will create dysfunction on the business board that negatively impacts the governance culture of the organisation.

Non-executive directors grow frustrated and good staff, with other employment options don’t hang around, thereby depriving the business of their expertise and corporate knowledge.

Weaker staff hang around. Broken winged individuals seem to attract “pleasers and appeasers”, which further ensures continuing general underperformance in their area of the business.


Ensure that:

  • Strategy and Business Plans contain clear goals for individual business divisions. This makes measuring results, and enforcing accountability, much easier to manage and,
  • Organisational structures are current and appropriate to support the Strategy and Business plans and,
  • Detailed job descriptions are in place, with relevant KPIs, to enable effective and objective performance management assessments to take place on a regular basis. Assessments must be handled professionally, preferably with at least one non-family senior participant (a non-executive director, HR manager, external adviser, or HR consultant can be used for this purpose).

The business board is responsible for supervising executive performance. It should apply stated business values and approved HR policies to the performance management process to help assess the performance of family employees in senior roles.

Performance assessments of all senior staff, including family members, must be objective. The same criteria should apply to all personnel, including family members. If a family member is identified as non-performing, this should be recognised as early as possible so they can be provided with support, and every opportunity to lift their game. Good business principles need to be balanced with family practicalities so if, despite providing additional support, the broken winged individual cannot perform at the required level, you must implement an appropriate commercial response: either move them into a less demanding role, or move them out of the business.

In either case, the family can then support them, using family rather than business resources, without having any further adverse effects on the business.

In effect, this demonstrates commitment to separating family-think from business-think, and it reconfirms that the family is operating a business-first, business.

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