Kendra grew up around her family’s business. As a child, she always imagined that one day, she would become a part of the organization, work her way through the ranks, and eventually inherit control from her father Eric, the company’s founder and CEO. Now, Kendra’s an adult with a college degree, and she wants to make that dream a reality.
“I want to join the family business,” she tells Eric one night over dinner. “I’m officially putting it out there.”
“That’s wonderful,” he responds. “I appreciate your initiative. What kind of job do you think you want?”
“Well, eventually,” she says, “I’d like your job.”
The next day, Eric emails his sister, Rhonda, to ask if she has time for an impromptu meeting. Rhonda serves as the company’s CFO. She’s also Eric’s co-founder and has helped build the business from day one.
They meet that afternoon in Eric’s office.
“I had a very interesting conversation with Kendra last night,” says Eric.
“What about?” asks Rhonda.
“She wants to join the business.”
“That’s great! You’ve always wanted her to, right? Why do you seem upset about it?”
“She thinks she can just take over my role.”
“Without having to work for it first?” Rhonda shakes her head as she completes his thought.
“That’s what she told me,” says Eric. Rhonda frowns.
“In that case, maybe she’s not ready.”
“My thoughts exactly. Could you talk to her about it?”
“Sure,” says Rhonda—and a couple days later, she calls her niece.
“Hi Kendra. I hope you’re well. I heard you’re interested in joining the family business.”
“Yes, I am!” Kendra says. “I’m glad we’re getting the chance to talk about it.”
“Me too,” says Rhonda. “You know, when I was your age, I never dreamed I’d be doing what I’m doing here today.”
“You put in a lot of work.”
“Yes, and so did your father. And so will you, if you really want to be a part of this organization.”
Kendra pauses. “I know. I know that, auntie.”
“Do you?” Rhonda counters. “You’re in the real world now, and you’re going to need to start having some realistic expectations. I think your best option is to get an entry-level job, first.”
“But that’s exactly what I want,” says Kendra.
“CEO is not an entry-level job.”
“Wait, what are you talking about? I’m not ready to be CEO.”
“No, you’re not,” says Rhonda.
What Happened Here?
The scenario above is an example of communication triangulation: a form of indirect communication that creates conflict and dysfunction between three or more people. Person A (Eric) has a perceived difference of opinion with Person B (Kendra) and turns to Person C (Rhonda) for help or support.
Sometimes, people knowingly engage in triangulation to bypass others’ boundaries (e.g. asking for permission from one parent when the other has already said “no”), but just as often—at least—it occurs due to unintentional error. Either way, the result is a game of “telephone” in which facts get distorted as people relay and re-relay information while omitting, misremembering, or misrepresenting important details.
Everyone involved in triangulation suffers: Person A must deal with their uncomfortable feelings about Person B, while disrespecting Person B by going behind their back and unnecessarily involving Person C in a situation that has little or nothing to do with them. Arguments may break out, the conflict may escalate over time, and people may grow to resent each other. Moreover, this “drama” can cause inefficiencies, disengagement, and workplace friction—all of which can hurt the organization’s bottom line, and may even develop into legal disputes.
What Causes Triangulation—and Why Is It So Prevalent in Family Businesses?
As you can imagine (or may intimately be aware), triangulation is a common problem for family businesses. Certainly, it can happen in any workplace, but family dynamics have a unique way of catalyzing and intensifying toxic forms of indirect communication.
The number one cause of triangulation is fear: fear of conflict, fear of embarrassment, fear of not getting what one wants. Members of a family business may feel intimidated by a family member who holds a great deal of explicit or implicit authority. That could be an executive, founder, or supervisor; or it could be someone whose authority derives from their position in the family rather than their business title—for instance, a grandparent who serves as an informal advisor.
In some cases, as in Kendra, Eric, and Rhonda’s situation, the fear may seem counterintuitive: a father is afraid of disappointing his daughter, a brother is so chummy with his brother that he feels uncomfortable bringing up bad news about the business, a niece is afraid of shattering her uncle’s delusions of competency. For each family, age and familial structure come into play, as do the family’s idiosyncratic taboos and “unspeakables.”
Fear may engender confusion over roles and responsibilities (although fear isn’t the only contributing factor), which also causes triangulation. Unspoken rules—a frequent obstacle in family businesses—are hardly rules at all, since people’s assumptions about what’s appropriate and who’s in charge can vary wildly. When boundaries are ambiguous, family members and other employees may inadvertently engage in triangulation. The same is true for workplaces with too few or, indeed, too many boundaries: excessive bureaucracy is arguably a form of avoidance.
Patterns of poor communication, whether learned or inherited, make matters worse. This is a particulate difficult issue for families and, by extension, their businesses. If you hear any of the following kinds of phrases in your organization, you may have a triangulation problem:
- “It’s not the right time or place to talk about that.”
- “That’s none of your business.”
- “Why? Because I said so.”
- “Fair is fair.”
How Can You Avoid Triangulation?
- Set expectations. Prioritize direct, immediate discussion—especially when the conversation is difficult. Deal with conflict as it happens, ask clarifying questions whenever there’s the potential for ambiguity, and communicate boundaries by making sure everyone understands their and others’ roles within the organization.
- Invite conversation. Encourage feedback and collaboration. Ask employees what frustrates them and what provides them with fulfillment at work, as well as how leadership and management could be communicating better.
- Call in—not out. Whenever possible, avoid disciplining or shaming employees in front of others. Calling people out on bad behavior creates and reinforces the perception that you are someone to be feared and avoided. Instead, check your assumptions and start a (private) dialogue with the person: learn what motivated the behavior, and remind them of the company’s values.
- Develop written policies, if necessary. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, as well as the scope of the communication issues at hand, you may need to draft policies regarding communication methods and tools: who to include in email chains or conference calls, how to share feedback with leadership, when and how employees should bring up their ideas with the rest of the team, and so on.
- Talk to an attorney. Finally, if there was ever someone to talk to about your issues with the members of your family you work alongside, it’s your attorney… or your therapist. Unlike a therapist, however, Offit Kurman’s attorneys have years of experience handling sensitive family business challenges, and we with can work with you to develop actionable strategies to keep your organization moving forward.
If you have any questions about this or any family business matter, please feel free to contact me. In my next family business article, I will explore how family systems differ from business systems—and how to achieve family business harmony. Make sure to subscribe to Offit Kurman’s Legal Blog or Law Matters monthly newsletter so you don’t miss any great content.
Questions about your family business? Contact Mike Mercurio at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT MIKE MERCURIO
Mr. Mercurio is a Principal and the Chair of the Firm’s Business Law and Transactions Practice Group. He serves as outside general counsel to clients on matters related to corporate and business law, commercial transactions, government contracting, healthcare, construction services, and real estate. As a strategic partner to firm clients, Mr. Mercurio regularly counsels entrepreneurial individuals and assorted entities on all aspects of business and commerce including formation and structure; ownership, management and control; financing and capital; expansion and acquisition; sale and transfer; and contraction and dissolution. He is well versed in the various issues and challenges companies of all sizes and industries face in the business life cycle including start-up, maturation and end-stage considerations.
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