Who I am: How identity creates conflict and the 2 steps to change
8th February 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.”
David is a partner in the family business. He is one of the third generation and the business is reasonably classed as a “cousin consortium” although in reality the lines criss cross the generations. Partners now include a majority of people from outside the family. While the family are no longer majority owners, it bears their name, and a number are equity partners with leading roles.
The problem is that the business is underperforming and needs to change. David is not just out of kilter with the changes management want to implement, but is also experiencing strong negative feelings; anger and anxiety.
The problem is also that the managing partner (David’s cousin) is keenly aware of the family relationship, and is caught between the need to change, the need to keep family matters private, the need to look after his cousin, and the need to look after a wider group of interests, and that there seem to be trip wires everywhere he steps.
David has struggled, and often, meetings to resolve the problems have ended as shouting matches. Perhaps as a palliative, David was asked to take on the leadership of a regional office. However, he feels he has been “exiled”, and has set this location onto a different strategy from the firm: the problem is entrenched and has worsened.
Life for both David and his cousin is dominated by this really challenging problem; both are affected by it and both are suffering. Neither has the tools they need to resolve it. While David is not his real name, both David and the situation are real and very common.
This kind of conflict, which may not quite be open warfare, but is evident to everyone in the business, creates stress and inertia. It can paralyse effective decision making. It can make family businesses vulnerable and even fail as they struggle to adapt or to respond to crises.
It is caused by something powerful and emotional that lies in the concept of self. A felt sense of something that, when threatened, can make us boil over, and may lead to chronic and stressful conflict.
When we confuse our sense of self with the business, existential threats can be triggered by events happening at work. It can happen in more subtle ways, for example when behaviour learned in the family turns up at work, and something that is tolerable at home can feel 10 times more intense in front of colleagues, triggering the same level of threat response.
It is a problem that many experience, and very common in family businesses.
So, how do David or his cousin address this?
They both know there is an issue. The origin is complicated, with much water under the bridge, and each is likely to have limiting beliefs about the other. Even thinking about it will bring on negative feelings, stress and rumination.
We all go through a cycle, when faced with problems like this, that can be categorised in the four stages of the Alembic Threat Response Model:
In this case they are both aware of the issues and their importance, this is always in the context of a threat.
Awareness of a threat is always followed by resistance and rejection. It is not our problem, or our fault; someone else or something outside our control is to blame. This is a natural defence mechanism and is strong and habitual. We can experience anger, self-righteousness, self-justification, and demotivation, all of which fragment our thinking into a rigid and narrow focus and limit our sense of agency, openness and creativity when we need them the most.
Acceptance indicates a hole in our defences; that critical moment of accepting the truth that we are part of a story, and therefore can change how we play that part. We were always in a system of communication and identity. Identities only exist in relation to something else in a story. Acceptance allows a return of flexibility and creativity, and the opportunity to change the story.
Often, we resist acceptance because we don’t know how to be different, and this is in of itself a disempowering experience. To accept, as one of our coaches, Bert Stemarthe, puts it, feels like being out at sea beyond the familiar shore of home, and unable to see a safe shore ahead.
The signal of change, then, is very often reaching out for help. With outside help comes a new perspective and the tools needed to face problems squarely and finally start to break them down and change them.
So here are two tips to get started.
If your family business is suffering from conflict and inertia, make a commitment to find a solution and start with yourself.
2. 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 guide will be an essential support as you re-write your story.
It is part of our natural make up to generalise and ignore the familiar. For this reason, how we are with each other can become fixed, and habitual. All it takes for this to change is not to see it this way, and the courage to be creative with that vulnerable “self”. While scary, and we will need a guide, such exploration can be deeply enriching, turning the certainty of “who I am” back into the potentiality of “who am I?”
In my next article I will explore David’s story further, and how a family identity can be turned into a source of strength.
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.