Solving "Ego" Problems in Your Family Business

Don't let sparring egos tear the family business apart.

Like the Mississippi River, a strong ego is a powerful resource-as long as it stays within its banks," says Edwin Hoover, a psychologist and family business consultant in Oak Brook, Illinois. "We routinely find that family members with superior capabilities and the strongest senses of who they are end up feeling the most invested in the family business."

"A person's ego speaks to their passion about what they do and how they want to bring the business into the future," adds Colette, Edwin's wife.

Both Edwin and Collette are family business consultants, co-authors of Getting Along in Family Business (Routledge Publications) and principals of Crowe Chizek and Company LLP, an accounting and consulting firm located in Oak Brook, Illinois. Thanks to personal and professional experience on the matter, the couple has gained thoughtful insights into how strong personalities and egos fare in family businesses.

They agree that problems arise when strong egos become strong wills with differing ideas about where the business should go. For example, when one person says, "I think we should do X," the other says, "I think we should do Y." "It's what we call a 'right vs. right' dilemma," says Colette. The good news is, if relatives trust and respect one another-and make every effort to hear each other out-they can often work through such predicaments.

Unfortunately, things veer off in a different direction when a family member tries to paint himself or herself as more correct than the other person and strives to prove the other person wrong. When this happens, two strong-willed, out-of-control egotists can do some serious damage. They become staunch, then immovable, and sometimes end up destroying both family relationships and the business.

Before that occurs, "It's important to slow the conflict down, to get yourselves back to a common denominator, to a time when things were working well," says Edwin. It may even mean sitting down to talk about some very basic things, like what you both want for the business.

"Clashes of egos on an intergenerational level often come about when parents aren't sensitive to a son or daughter's strong need for creative expression," says Stephen Notari, a psychotherapist and family business advisor in Los Angeles. "The clashes are exacerbated when parents don't exhibit a reasonable willingness to enter into a neutral territory, where neither child nor parent dominates."

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This article was originally published in the July 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: When Egos Collide.

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