From “who I am” to “who we are”: Turning confusion and conflict about identity into a source of strength
20th April 2021
“They can’t change things like this. It makes me so angry! It’s my name, my family, and everything they do affects me. It’s who I am.”
In my first article on Identity Confusion, I told the story of David (not his real name), a partner in a third-generation family business. He was suffering intense emotions triggered by attempts to modernise the business that bore his name, and that he was part of. His inability to separate his sense of self, his identity, with that of the business meant that any changes seemed like they were being done to some part of him. Equally his membership of the family made it very difficult for his boss to deal with the situation.
This story indicates how bad Identity Confusion can be. In reality it shows up in all sorts of subtle ways. Situations can arise almost out of the blue. Can you stop being a brother or a sister in the board room? Behaviours and beliefs that you grow up with can easily turn up in an unprofessional way at work, and when they do, trigger feelings that are much more intense when exposed in public.
Identity is a source of success for many, so how does “Who I Am” work so well for some while ruining the lives of others?
Let’s start by looking a little at self and identity. What is it?
How would you describe your own identity? It starts “I am a…” mother, sister, daughter, director, lover, painter, shareholder, engineer, woman, human. As we ask ourselves this question, we quickly realise we hold many identities or roles within an overall sense of self. Some are more precious than others. What makes them precious?
Like a piece of fine art, this is related to our history. Our most emotional moments change us forever, and can be part, therefore, of our story, and our history. We might sense them somehow to be our truths. And sensed like this, an identity can facilitate in us feelings of pride, and excitement, or shame and embarrassment.
Identities are the cloth of our social position and evidence our sense of success, or our failure and always of our most intimate, hidden fears and vulnerabilities. They are held within our body as feelings as much as images or sounds. These traces are not always accurate, yet they are how we made meaning of these events: sometimes shattering, sometimes wonderful and often a bit of a jumble. Brothers and sisters will often recall the same major event in their shared history in an entirely different way.
Are your identities clear to you? If not, you too have work to do and may at times be surprised by your emotions when something is said or done that threatens who you are.
It is inevitable that identity causes people in family businesses problems, and no one should be judged harshly for this.
The very same felt sense of shared identity is also behind the best family companies in the world and some of the most successful brands. Building a powerful brand is hard work, but most businesses set out purposefully to achieve this. The same work is needed to resolve Identity Confusion in the family business, and it can have an equally positive impact on both family and business life if successful. As siblings learn to manage the boundaries between the different parts they play better, it is easier to become a powerful team and lead from a position of creativity and flexibility rather than rigidity and disharmony.
How do you improve things?
There are no easy solutions, you have to face the issues as they are. The root of change lies in opening up to talking about the tough subjects of feelings and mistakes, limiting beliefs and triggering events. Letting go of long held chronic bad feelings can be done. It requires a special kind of mediation, working with the body and emotions as well as talking; creativity and ceremony can both play a powerful positive role. Facilitated well, deeply entrenched negative feelings can be resolved enabling reconnection and movement.
Solving the problems is an opportunity for both self and family growth and development. Solving the problems teaches lessons that will resonate across the lives of all family members, improving wellbeing, resilience, and even giving long term health benefits. Learning to resolve issues can bring an increase in the pleasure of being in business as a family. Growing through the ups and downs together can be a wonderful thing.
Here are 7 points to bear in mind. The first two were mentioned in my first article, and are restated here as they are the fundamental starting point for change.
- Intention: if your family business is suffering from conflict and inertia, make a commitment to find a solution and start with yourself.
- Find a guide: if human relationships were easy we would all be saints. They are not, and while the steps to positive change are well known, an experienced independent coach or teacher will be an essential guide support as you re-write your story.
- Create safety: this is one of the hardest things to do as it requires at least one person in the family to stop blaming the others and judging themselves negatively about what has been happening. A good way to take this further is by creating a private space – family councils are often established for this reason – away from both the business and the non-business elements of the family. This creates safety for the participants to talk openly and frees the uninvolved family members from business politics, and the business from family politics.
- Have difficult conversations. Through tackling real issues you can learn and practice empathy, listening and feeling strong emotions without losing it. If you do lose it, you have the space to recover. There is no such thing as an unemotional person, but we can all learn to tolerate more discomfort than we think and find the strength to tell our story as we would wish.
- Commit to learning how to communicate with each other. This requires bodywork, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, rehearsal, the rediscovery and practice of respect and trust, and positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion and forgiveness; all of which can be learned.
- Take control of your story. It is yours to write so create an ethos and options that allow you to write it well, leaving a history that will serve future generations.
- If you need to, consider appointing independent senior leadership – this might be a trusted, effective and neutral chair, or a strong non-executive or professional chief executive. This is not an easy choice to make or easy to implement successfully. However, it can create enough separation to relieve family members from some of the clashes and provide a mentor who they will listen to, so it is a good option to consider.
Like all journeys, what starts out as an unfamiliar and perhaps very uncomfortable change, soon becomes known. As each member of the family learns how relax a little so they can respond more consciously and they learn how to bring that response more effectively into communication with other family members, conversation starts to work again.
In a family business, the family are a team just like all others. No team gets to high performance levels without addressing their problems. It is in the rehearsal offsite that successful strategies can be found, that work in the pressure cooker of the business. As these strategies lead to success, amongst the blessings you can receive are pleasure and humour in working together.
Family businesses have unique sensitivities, but if these are tackled in the right way identities become an effective and potent unifying force, perhaps even a brand.
“We are a family business. It is who we are.”
About the Author:
Nick Mayhew, MA FCA, is a leadership facilitator and coach. He is founder and managing director of Alembic Strategy, an advisory business that helps the people who own and lead family businesses tackle some of their most significant challenges, enabling people and organisations to grow and to change. He has wide ranging leadership experience as a former equity partner and board member of a large professional firm, as a non-executive director and as a chair.