The Succession Taboo
10th November 2014
Mortality is a given faced by everyone, but how each of us deal with that knowledge and possible attendant anxiety can be very different. In terms of business - family-owned or otherwise - it is important that this fact be dealt with in a healthy, direct and timely manner.
Let's look at the three most common ways in which businesspeople cope with the thought of death in terms of work behaviour:
Repress it through busyness
While there has been pushback against constant busyness in the past couple of decades by psychologists, wellness consultants and the like, who promote more mindful living, we still live in a time where 'workaholism' is unfortunately rewarded in the workplace. Workaholics are frequently held up as admirable, model employees, and receive verbal, monetary and other support to sustain their overboard habits and behaviour.
The problem with this is that often such employees are working so ferociously and non-stop in a bid to forget a deep-seated anxiety over their own mortality. They hope to keep unpleasant, anxious, even depressive thoughts at bay by not giving their minds time to even go there. Moreover, they often subconsciously try to build up a sense of their own robustness or immortality through work dominance or prowess.
Refuse to acknowledge it
Another common approach to the fear of death is a refusal to acknowledge it. Senior executives for example may neglect or refuse to address their succession, preferring to instead to keep going as though they will never be leaving the company.
This is problematic not only on a personal level, but also on an organisational level, as often a company stumbles or stalls due to the leader holding onto the reins too long and not establishing a succession plan. (Successful succession plans, moreover, allow for a period of handover, during which the outgoing leader and incoming leader work in tandem to ensure a smooth transition phase.)
In family businesses the personal/emotional and business ramifications of such denial over succession will be intertwined.
Work hard to leave a lasting mark
From the Egyptian pyramids entombing pharaohs to more modern architectural feats such as Romania's Palace of the Parliament, many men and women have tried to alleviate death anxiety by creating something that will physically stay on Earth as testimony to their existence and greatness. This mentality is referred to as the edifice complex.
The fixation by some on creating a family business dynasty is a modern-day example of the edifice complex. It is felt - consciously or subconsciously - that the family business is a lasting mark on the world ensuring one's name and existence is not forgotten.
Replacing death anxiety with positive motivations
None of these three mind-sets is necessarily unhealthy, depending on the extent to which it is adopted. The desire to leave a legacy, for example, can be a positive motivator, helping executives to eschew frivolous matters for those that are more significant and promise long-term benefits and sustainability. Some executives find the establishment of a foundation a meaningful legacy goal. Family business owners also have the well-being of their children as a possible legacy focus.
Staying active and productive is likewise a good thing, as it keeps you from dwelling on your pending death all the time. But some reflection is certainly needed if you're to make practical, legal and psychological provision for your departure from the business.
Creating a healthy business climate
Executives need to recognise the role that death anxiety plays in any business and address it properly, as unattended it can lead to depression, burn out, excessive absenteeism, anger and outbursts, and more. As the leaders of a business, executives need to first tackle their own death anxiety, finding ways of making their work meaningful so as to alleviate that anxiety. They will then be in a position to help their employees do the same.
A workplace where everyone is motivated by the significance of what they do during work hours is a workplace likely to be populated by content, ambitious, energised and productive people.
This article originally appeared on KPMG's family business website,www.kpmgfamilybusiness.com.