Major Communications Challenges in Family Business

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” Paul Newman famously said in the movie “Cool Hand Luke.” What makes the line memorable is that both Newman’s Luke and the prison guard who earlier uttered a similar line were describing a system in which inhuman brutality substituted for any normal concept of communication.

What does this have to do with family business? Family firms also have trouble with communication. And the most common challenges to communication in family business can be as intractable as the cinematic rebel Luke.

Simply failing to listen to what the other person is saying is probably the most common communication mistake. It’s perhaps the most important, too, since it happens early in the process and, unless corrected, makes it impossible for real communication to occur later on. Making a sincere effort to hear what others are saying is a critical first step in family business communication, and one that unfortunately often receives little attention.

A problem that is especially common in family business is interpreting a message from someone strictly in terms of a past stereotype of that person. This is also known as coloring, painting or listening to old tapes. The erroneous assumption behind it is that people never change or say different things. Reality is that every message deserves to be interpreted on its own.

Triangulation is another communication issue common to families. In triangulation, communicators seek strength in numbers, recruiting one or more supporters to their position and then ganging up on the individual holding a differing viewpoint. This, of course, is not communication at all. It’s more akin to the brute force technique of, say, a prison guard.

In family business as in any business, time seems to always press. It’s natural to try shortcuts. The above communications errors are, at heart, shortcuts, which is part of what makes them tempting. But, just as sometimes shortcuts can lead us astray on journeys, when it comes to communication they should be critically examined for their potential to cause problems. Not allocating sufficient time to communication efforts is a symptom of poor communication technique and ultimately another cause of poor communication. Often it’s better to allocate more time to a discussion than seems convenient, in order to increase the chances that communication will be effective.

The last communication challenge is more subtle than the others, but no less powerful. It occurs when someone approaches communication as an interaction between superior and inferior. It can be comforting to the ego to be condescending and simply issue commands rather than engaging in two-way discussion. But it rarely leads to effective communication.

The “powerful man syndrome” is one of the negative forces that comes into play here. That is when someone is unwilling to pass on negative information to a powerful decision maker and, as a result of being poorly informed, the powerful maker exerts his or her power unwisely. This syndrome can be avoided by approaching information exchanges as happening peer-to-peer rather than superior-to-inferior.

Communication is what makes an organization out of a group of individuals. It’s a complex topic with endless subtleties. But if you can avoid these major communications challenges, you will give your family business a better chance of performing as an effective organization rather than something resembling a cinematic chain gang.

REGENERATION can help improve the communication in your business. Read more.

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