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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Boundaries That You Can't See... But Oh Boy, Can You Ever Feel Them

by Shel Horowitz

When you boil it all down to the essence, where do most family business conflicts really start?

According to Jane Adams, the Family Business Center's September speaker, a surprisingly large percentage have to do, ultimately, with "boundaries issues."

What kind of boundaries are we talking about, anyway?

Adams explains: "Boundaries set one thing in relationship to another. They are a line between where you end and I begin. They separate our thoughts from our feelings from our impulses from our fantasies. And they structure relationships between people.

They're the vehicle for reconciling at the personal level two different and conflicting ends: to be connected—and to be autonomous and separate. How you as an individual cope with that determines your psychology.

"While they are essentially mental structures, they are as real as a fence or a border. If we ignore them, we're in danger of being enmeshed and swallowed, or so disconnected that they don't exist."

Adams described three qualities of boundaries: Complexity, Permeability, Flexibility (how capable you are of adjusting the permeability).

"Everybody has a unique boundaries style, open to closed, flexible to rigid, complex to simple. Complexity is about how many channels we connect with others on – how able we are, for instance, to relate to people who are different from us, how much of ourselves we share – or don’t – with them – which  explains why sometimes we sleep with people we don't want to wake up with."

Sane people, she says, incorporate both open and closed boundaries into their psyches. But a schizophrenic's boundaries are either extremely permeable or absent entirely: "They get their thoughts confused with other people." On the other extreme, those with fortress-like boundaries "are so disconnected as to be catatonic."

Most people, of course, are somewhere in the middle, though where they are on the continuum changes over as we move through different life stages.

In family businesses (and by implication, in most of life), flexibility is often a virtue—but it has its costs as well: "The family businesses I counsel that have  the fewest  problems are the ones where the family boundary style is diffuse and disconnected. People are individual, private, they don't get together outside, and that works very well in the business. What's missing, however, in those businesses is a sense of family mission or family unity. They do not provide the nurturing—or the enmeshment."

Emotional trespass is a fact of life in families; parents can’t avoid it when children are young, You have to tell them to put their coat on in the winter. This level of enmeshment is inappropriate when everyone involved is an adult, but in real life it may continue – the mother telling the 30 year old daughter what to eat, or not to, for instance.

In family businesses, though, the boundary between family and business is often just as enmeshed.  As a result, family issues, especially the unresolved ones like sibling rivalry, marital conflict, and parent/adult child problems  spill over into the family business.

But the needs of business and family are not necessarily the same thing, and for that reason, a strong, well-defined boundary between the family and the business is the single biggest determinant of how they will transition into the second and third and fourth generations."

But it can be very tricky to establish and maintain boundaries in family business. Everyone plays multiple roles: as a family, as a part of the business, and where they overlap—and each may require a different boundary style. Which opens "many opportunities for boundaries issues to rear their ugly head, including unresolved conflicts from the other domain that seep in. The fence can't be invisible. It has to be spelled out and codified or it will be ignored.

"Boundary intelligence is a capacity we all have. You exercise it by being aware when the lines are being crossed – whether you’re doing it or someone else is. We pay most attention to our boundaries when someone's trespassing on them. You know when someone else has crossed the line, but you may not know when you have done it. And that's why a mutually codified boundaries code is as important as a business plan. It helps family businesses manage their boundaries, especially when the needs of the family and those of the business conflict.”

Another boundary that may cause issues in the family business is the one between the past and present. In families, certain people are assigned certain roles: the tattletale, the peacemaker, the screw-up. And that might not fit you today, if it ever did, but this is the role you've been thrust into. If your family role was onerous to you as a child, if it doesn't fit today, it's something you have to work really hard in your boundaries development not to bring into the family business."

Parents, siblings, and even long-time employees still may be stuck viewing you through your decades-obsolete role. "Ask, 'am I working with the adult I see today, or with that jerk of a brother who never listened?'"

Another boundary to examine is between fairness and equality. Founders shouldn't necessarily treat all their children equally; "treat them all fairly. Give everybody in the family a shot at success in the family business, an opportunity to work, to have talents and skills evaluated, to get feedback—it's a foot in the door.

"Fair is also when it's time to turn in the keys, you do so. You let the generation that's expected to take over the business do it while they're still young and motivated. Look at Prince Charles. Hs mother will live a long life, and at 75, he won't have much ability to shake up the monarchy. Founders who are reluctant to turn over power lose the moment when their kids were optimally able to take over. Kids are so tired of waiting for authority, control, and power, and the opportunity to make their mark. By the time it happens, they've gone on."

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