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Bullying in the Family Business

 It is not surprising bullying is alive and well in family business(es).  G1s created a thriving business through hard work, sweat equity, and a little luck.  Should they not call the shots, demand respect, and expect G2s to buck-up and toe the line?  G2s join the business with childhood jealousies, parental comparisons, and past wounds buried deep in their subconscious.  The bitter resentments and pain are dark shadows that playout in meetings, compensation, and equity disputes, as well as feed toxic energy into what should be a healthy family enterprise environment.  

I could go on to the G3s and talk about how these family branches continue the bullying, but I want to take us in another direction and talk about stopping the Bully in the Bullpen.    First, let’s define bullying. Bullying can be expressed directly in the form of verbal aggression, sarcasm, demeaning statements, and unreasonable demands, or expressed indirectly by sabotage, or gossiping. Bullying often can and has led to physical and sexual attacks, scarring future generations. Bullying behavior can have an insidious and long-standing impact on the target and their families. 

Tips for Stopping the Bully:

#1        Call the behavior – identify the bully.   If you can’t directly address the behavior, confide in a family member who you feel can.   If no one feels strong enough to address the bully, call in an outside resource. Identify the behavior to the transgressor and don’t tolerate defensiveness and/or excuses.   Firmly state behavior expectations and sign a Code of Conduct.

#2        Clarify Family Values.  To keep your family and family business healthy, start by building a culture around family values from day one. If you sense that someone is testing the limits of these values, handle the situation quickly with open and honest communication. Should the situation with the family member escalate beyond your capability, reach out to bring in a third party who can facilitate the conversation. 

#3        Develop a crucial conversation environment. The foremost issues with bullying in the family business are the lack of honest, straightforward communication in all directions. If an individual has not developed the habit of having challenging conversations, it is a difficult habit to learn. This can, at times, require a facilitator to ensure that the challenging conversations do not degenerate into yelling matches or shut down at the first signs of disagreement. One of my recommendations is the book, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2ndedition”.

#4        Establish Boundaries. When it comes to a family bully, it is important to set firm boundaries between you and the bully. Make yourself clear and stick to the rules that you have set. Anytime family members continue to cross the line in their treatment of you, others, or the company, you need to set a limit.  And stick to the boundaries – take a zero-tolerance attitude.

Remember, a bully is abusive, and no human being should be subject to abuse.  The sooner family members band together and break the cycle, the sooner healing begins, and new life energy fills the family business.

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