Toronto Canada

Tel: 1 (416) 360-0177

Pervin Family Business Advisors


Anger and the Accidental Partnership«

The slammed phone, the yelling, the dirty looks, the fist on the table. Everywhere in the family business, I see anger.

Sometimes, it's not so obvious. It shows up as subtle putdowns, blaming, sarcasm and withdrawal. And sometimes, people don't even know they're angry. They just procrastinate, sulk, break the rules, don't answer e-mail and come to meetings unprepared.

Almost without exception, anger arises in every business and every human relationship. But why is this emotion so prevalent – and so forcefully expressed – in family businesses?

Many participants in the family business are forever steaming over the real or perceived unfairness they endure. And many of their disillusioned family members live with feelings of anxiety, fear, disgust or despair over their perennially angry relative. No one should have to live like this. The solution lies at the root of many family business problems. That's why it's so important to recognize the signs of habitual anger and to deal with them constructively and sensitively.

In this article, which is part of an ongoing accidental partnership relationship series, I will talk about the root causes of this long-lived anger and how anger is expressed. In future articles, which will be referenced in my e-letter and found on my website, I will discuss the anger cycle, how these feelings can be expressed in a constructive way, provide some alternate solutions to the phenomenon, and share some case studies.

Why do family business members seem so angry?

The roots of anger may tap into some fairly hard ground. Sadly, some family businesses force an association between people who would never personally seek each other out – perhaps people who don't really get it, who are not competent, who can't be relied upon, who others feel they must carry (and yet they get an equal share) and who put their own interests above anyone else's. In the unfairness of this accidental partnership lie the embers for anxiety, closely linked to anger, which heats the struggle in the business, family and shareholder arenas of war.

Whether family members truly dislike each other or not, anger gets expressed more freely in family businesses than in other organizations because demonstrations of anger are learned in families. Right from infancy and childhood, anger is a basic emotion that often works its magic on parents, children and siblings alike. These old patterns rise to the surface in family businesses, especially when people come under stress. And, needless to say, the ways in which families behave with each other are often highly inappropriate to the conduct of business.

There's another reason as well. Often, anger is the only way family members have to express discontent. Many families, for instance, frown on confrontation. Everybody is supposed to get along, and if you disagree or get offended, you're supposed to suck it up in the interests of family harmony. This especially applies to any problems you might have with elders or relatives outside your immediate family.

Unlike other kinds of businesses, then, the family business typically lacks a culture – much less a forum or mechanism – for asserting a problem and solving it in a respectful, dignified way.

What causes this anger?

Let's start at the origins of anger. The main trigger for anger – in anyone – is a perceived injustice. Often, it's a slight against one's feeling of self-worth and self-image. Whether it's an aggressive driver who cuts you off on the highway or a sister who takes your spot in the company parking lot, what they're implicitly saying is that they are more important than you. Your self-worth is challenged – and you burn.

Anger can also arise from someone standing in the way of your immediate needs. If you're in a particular hurry, for instance, losing that parking space may make you more angry than when you are not so pressed for time.

The third big trigger is when someone's words or deeds strike at a basic belief that you hold. If you essentially believe that your parents always favoured your sister over you, your sister's gratuitous and unpunished "theft" of your parking space may seem like perfect confirmation that you have never received what's due to you in your family. Another common belief among members of the family business is the conscious or unconscious fear that they hold their positions because of their family name and not through accomplishment. In this case, anger conceals a fear of being exposed as unworthy or incompetent. Taking the parking space, then, is taken as a sign that your sister believes you don't deserve that benefit and is implicitly saying so.

Notice that in all three triggers of anger, the emphasis is on fairness, reasonableness and expectation. It is not the hurt or damage that makes us angry, but the violation of expectations about the way we should be treated.

Now, anyone can perceive injustice – whether from bruised ego, unmet needs or inner sensitivities. Within families, however, these perceptions lie extremely close to the surface. When mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and cousins criticize or slight one another, the words or actions may carry underlying messages that no outsider can perceive. Sometimes, these messages are not even intended, but the fact remains that when a member of your family [it can even be an in-law] takes a shot at you, they often score a direct hit on your self-worth.

Recognize the signs of anger

And so people stew, simmer – and explode. But as I mentioned earlier, you don't always see it. Remember, whether their behaviour is outrightly hostile or not, their real intention (referring to the three "triggers" of anger, above) is simply to make people act in an expected way. Here, then, are a few of the many types of angry expressions.

The "seagull manager", the bombastic type that screams and dumps on everyone before flying away, is the most visible angry family member. Sometimes called "spikers" because the anger comes in short bursts, they are not always leaders in the business but people soon come to fear them because of their instability and temper. Therefore, no one challenges them too much, which is exactly the way the spiker likes it.

In family businesses, however, most anger is covert. Consider the slow burner. These are habitually angry people who seize every little incident as further proof that their situation is unfair. They blame, triangulate conspiracies and project dire results. What you often see, however, is someone who is aloof, condescending and guarded. They soon make other people feel uncomfortable, guilty and even angry at them. This, of course, feeds the slow burner's feeling of being treated unfairly and pads the sense of justification for anger and hostility.

A third covert type is the sloper. Here, the run-up to the angry outburst is longer than the spiker's. Resentful and suspicious, the sloper sulks after a real or imagined slight, perhaps sitting through an entire meeting before suddenly turning hostile and attacking over something said earlier. This can, in fact, be planned anger, where the sloper makes a set-up remark that provokes anger from others first, leading the sloper to raise the anger ante and bring in earlier grievances. The objective, of course, is to show a pattern of unfairness rather than just one isolated problem.

Then come the passive aggressives, which actually show up in two varieties: the procrastinator and the saboteur. Often unaware that they are angry, these insecure types are particularly averse to change. The passive aggressives express their anxiety, fear and uncertainty toward change by stalling: endless questions, incomplete assignments, delay, illness and imaginary obstacles. Remember: for the passive aggressive, change means a loss of control.

What makes one person act one way while another angers another way? It comes down to individual makeup, but those with high self-esteem are usually more likely to express discontent quickly by being assertive or even hostile. Business family members with lower self-esteem and those who experience depression are usually more covert in their expressions of anger. They often perceive themselves as a victim and direct their angry thoughts inwardly.

Anger is a choice

As you can see from the many ways anger is expressed, it is insidious and pervasive in the family business. The problem, of course, is that it often works exactly as planned, and perhaps that's why families can be so ambivalent about the way it stuns, frightens and generally makes other people feel bad – because it also tells people to stop offending, ignoring or disrespecting you. It can force the attacker to withdraw, and it sometimes keeps the spectre of ill-advised change at bay. It's about power, control and putting people where you want them to be.

But remember, anger is a choice. If you choose anger, you accept limitations on an open exchange of ideas and advice. You isolate yourself and others. You may be accepting an atmosphere of anxiety, vulnerability, suspicion, selfishness, moral indignation and other unhealthy attitudes.

There are other choices. In a family business, everything is taken personally because it's hard not to take it that way when it comes from someone close to you. So how can these feelings be expressed in a constructive way?

There are many pragmatic options. To start, may I suggest that you consider reading The Art of Fighting Fair and the book titled Difficult Conversations. Future articles will continue to examine this topic and offer additional beneficial ideas that can help bust these unhealthy and inappropriate toxic patterns. (Subscribe to our Family Ties« E-Letter to learn when new articles are published on our Web site.)

Over time, perhaps you and your business family members can begin to beat the demons of anger.


Printer-friendly versionPrint Article

Return to the Library

Send this article to a friend

Items marked with an asterisk (*) are required.

Please send this article to the following person:

Please tell us who you are, so that we may tell the person who sent them the article.

If you like, you may also include a message.