Communication Family Business

50 Common Causes Of Family Business Conflict – #11 Broken Wing Syndrome (Individuals)

Excessive protection, and inappropriate amounts of support provided by parents to offspring working in a family business, are common causes of conflict within business families.

Emotional Resilience is the personal ability to cope with, and adapt to, challenging situations. Resilient people, consciously and unconsciously, minimise their anxiety levels to remain personally, socially and vocationally effective, in most situations.

Resilience doesn’t remove or rectify problems, nor does it prevent individuals from feeling anger, stress or anxiety. It does help them to keep situations under control (physically and emotionally); to see past their problems, and to minimise the effects of negative feelings like failure, victimisation and unworthiness. Unmanaged negative feelings can lead to mental illness, including forms of depression that manifest as aggressive and disruptive behaviours, and cause increasing social incapacity and physical/emotional isolation. Chronic negativity drives some sufferers towards substance abuse, as a form of escape.

Low resilience has various causes, including: genetics; unsympathetic home, school & social environments; adverse life events (real and perceived); birth order; being on the wrong end of poor parenting skills; domineering parent(s), and overly competitive/aggressive siblings.

It’s bad news for individuals in their private lives; sad news when it affects families; and it can spell “disaster” when the effects transfer into a family business.

Emotional resilience is a personal frontline defence against dysfunctional behaviours, including chronic anxiety, aggression and depression. Therefore, its absence (somebody is not coping as, or as well as, a “normal” person should) is a strong indicator of serious personal vulnerability, and dire need. When that becomes a thing that affects a family business, stakeholders will find themselves suffering the unintended consequences of Broken Wing Syndrome (“BWS”).

BWS manifests itself in three ways:

BWS #1 (Individuals); BWS #2 (Families), and BWS #3 (Family Business).

BWS #1: a parent provides inappropriate support and excessive protection to an underperforming, non-resilient, “weak” child (broken wing). They do this in the business, and possibly in the family. The “child” may be any age, from 20s to 50s, and may be working with one or more siblings, or other family members.

Their poor performance can be spectacularly disruptive and damaging, especially if they hold a critical role in the business:

(a) financial pain from failing to do their job;

(b) resentment and disturbance in the workplace as a result of unfair and preferential treatment by parents / owners who are supposed to be fair, wise, and loyal to all;

(c) family conflict engendered by siblings feeling disrespected. BWS #1 stirs deeply buried resentments amongst high-performing siblings who received less parental attention during their growing up years – because they didn’t need it.

BWS #1 also feels like a betrayal of the declared values the family claims to bring to their business.
In effect, “family-first” behaviours have been brought into a business that claims to operate on “business-first” principles. It’s an example of the “Golden Rule of Family Business”: S/he who holds the gold, makes (and breaks) the rules!

Many parents seem to suffer “the guilts” as they age. They blame themselves for creating a weak child by failing to parent them properly during their early years, and for not supporting them enough emotionally, later in life.

To explain and justify their feelings and actions, they start to resent others:

(a) their spouses – for forcing them to prioritise business over family;

(b) the business – for claiming so much of their time and taking them away from their children;

(c) their high-functioning offspring – for failing to be more protective of their weaker siblings.

This last shows how poorly they understand their children, and how disconnected they are from reality. They fail to understand that they actually fostered this resentment by pressuring their children to provide surrogate parenting for their less capable and robust siblings.

In parents’ later years, especially when the weak child has produced grandchildren, these feelings of guilt are as overwhelming as they are unexpected. Long suppressed parenting instincts (usually, but not solely, maternal) suddenly surface and create major conflicts between matriarchs and patriarchs. They’re often bewildered, and poorly equipped to handle, such out-of-character behaviours.

One spouse (it’s usually Dad) may have a clear-eyed view of the situation, but has always chosen to turn a blind eye towards it – both to support their weak child, and to avoid conflict with their spouse. They rationalise they’ve given their son or daughter a relatively harmless role (eg: marketing) where they can’t do too much damage – at least, so long as the business is travelling reasonably well. This path of least resistance is easy to take in a family business … until it isn’t.

Mum becomes more vocal about protecting and supporting her vulnerable child, fearing that once she and Dad aren’t around, the pack will expel them from the business – casting them, and their grandchildren, out in the cold.

Dad can’t see this, and even if he does, isn’t willing to cross a line of his own making within the business. He won’t buy into doing more than he’s done in the past for the weak child. That puts him in direct conflict with Mum.

Meanwhile, the other sibling(s) decide that parasitic dependency is not OK anymore (if it ever was). Their concerns for the business and their own careers now outweigh their cares for their underperforming sibling. They lose patience and compassion for their weaker compatriot. Open conflict results. They also lose respect for both parents who, they feel, in different ways have failed to do the right thing by them, by the business, and by everyone else.

Their sibling is more than lazy and incompetent – they’re a liability, and protecting them is plain wrong. If they are to be supported at all, it should be done privately, by the parents. Note: there’s often a strong push, at this stage, to make the underperformer stand on their own feet for once, because if that happened, everyone could get on with their lives, the business could be operated properly, and perhaps natural balance would be restored?

Sadly, this situation can get so frustrating for anointed heirs, especially those with options, that they pack their bags and leave the family business, occasionally going into competition with their own family, as some form of payback. This ruins business succession plans; weakens the business generally, and potentially blows the whole family apart.

Broken Wing Syndrome is a lose / lose / lose / lose / lose situation (individuals / siblings / parents / family / business).


Consider the different contexts:

(a) Family;

(b) Business and,

(c) Family Business, before doing anything. Identify and try to assess the nature and quality of the relationships connecting key individuals. Are they: open | closed | positive | negative | respectful | trusting | loving | supportive | jealous | defensive | aggressive | protective | independent | reliant?

Focus on the individual with “the problem”. Establish rapport through genuine empathy that attempts to understand the headspace they’re in. Don’t judge, dismiss, or patronise. Become their friend, and guide, without becoming their advocate. They’re usually desperate to get more people onside, but insecurity makes them suspicious and untrusting, so they need help to make it happen.

Discuss and negotiate their acceptance of personal help – to increase their resilience, and reduce their need for protection. If necessary, enrol allies to help make this happen (spouses, friends, trusted employees and/or parents).

Introduce help in the form of a specialist coach with appropriate psych skills who will probably use personality and/or clinical testing to get a baseline reading on the underperforming individual. Presenting this as a team / leadership development exercise involving other staff helps to avoid pushback.
Conduct a review of business needs, with reference to organisational structure. Is there a critical business need that’s not being met, as a result of supporting the non-performing sibling? Develop a commercially-justifiable response.

Create detailed job descriptions for all senior roles, with appropriate KPIs and performance management criteria. Institute objective PM processes, with defined consequences for success and failure. Ensure this is organisational, rather than personal.

Discuss the issue in the Family Council, or at least with the family’s leaders. Transfer responsibility for “the sibling with the broken wing” from the business into the family, on the basis: if the weakling doesn’t have a future in the business, s/he’ll be helped by the family, to some agreed extent.

Note: helping to make the business perform properly enables it to support family goals and needs.
Explain and negotiate acceptance of the solution with the siblings.

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