What does neuroscience have to do with family business?


One mid-November night, I was driving down a country road with my 15-year-old son. I was distracted by intractable problems going on within my family. Suddenly, I saw a stop sign whizzing by me, and I realized there was no way I could stop in time. We hit a car going 40 miles per hour.

My life was spared that day, and so were the lives of the two women I hit and the life of my son.

But what a scary thing! Imagine how you’d feel if you hurt or killed someone because you weren’t paying attention!

That accident was no accident; I wasn’t fully present behind the wheel. I was distracted by problems I was tolerating and not resolving.

I’m not alone, of course. How many of us don’t attend to the relationship problems at hand? It is common to read about the challenging dynamics of Family-Owned Businesses (FOB): 

  • generational issues of expectations and power
  • sibling/cousin rivalry
  • early childhood conflicts that live on into the present
  • taboo topics that interfere with communication

But what do you do to resolve them? Many FOB leaders don’t resolve them; they tolerate them. Their health suffers and their relationships at home become strained. They start counting the days until something changes and their lives at work become easier — maybe having extra drinks at night to be able to sleep, maybe staying distracted through working harder and longer, hoping the conflicts will sort themselves out.

The day of my car accident was a huge wake-up call. I decided there in the middle of the road to pay attention in my life, take responsibility and address the problems before me.

Maybe you’ve had a wake-up call — something that shook you to the core and made you pay attention. Maybe not. Either way, we owe it to ourselves to be present, to take responsibility and resolve the problems that plague us in our family and business.

Here’s a story to illustrate. Joe called me one day because of his escalating health problems. He was the youngest sibling in a family-owned business and was frustrated at every turn. As we talked, it became clear he was extending early family conflicts into the business today, playing by rules that were established when he was young. He didn’t dare take action without express permission and often interpreted his brothers’ comments through the lens of “you don’t give me enough credit.” He was constantly angry about his “lack of power,” and it was literally killing him.

What Joe learned is that his own mindset created both the problems and the solutions — and that by taking responsibility for everything in his life, he could create major change. For example, when he thought he was being treated with disrespect, that was indeed his experience. When he decided that his perceived lack of respect was just perception, he felt more empowered to enact his vision.

Some people believe that taking responsibility for everything in their life is unrealistic or creates a “blame the victim” mentality. But in fact, taking responsibility for everything in your life allows you the freedom and opportunity to create the life and business you want.

There’s a saying about the brain that goes like this: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” What we believe gives rise to our thoughts, which generate our feelings, which produce our actions, which create our results, which reinforce our beliefs. Our results make us think we were right to believe what we did in the first place! We perpetuate current reality in our brain’s neural networks and in our lives.

The way out of this loop is to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions and shift our mindset — to actually change those original, often unconscious beliefs.

Here are three steps to shift your mindset:

1. Establish your vision: Dwell in possibilities of what you want to see in your business. Don’t get stuck on how things currently are, spend time imagining how you want them to be. The brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined experiences (hard to believe, but true). The more time you spend visualizing the relationships and communication you want to have, the more you will see opportunities to create this.

2. Identify the obstacles: What “old family rules” have you adopted that you’re consciously or unconsciously following? Talk to someone or write for five to 10 minutes to discover how playing with these old rules blocks your effectiveness and satisfaction. One way to discover these rules is to look at what’s not working for you, what doesn’t feel good in your day-to-day functioning and what would feel more satisfying to you.

3. Make new decisions: If the old rules no longer serve you, decide to establish new rules. Instead of “I can’t take action without express permission,” decide that the fellow leaders in your family trust you and trust your actions. Then take action from a place of integrity. Or, if you feel trapped by a family system and don’t believe you can get out, decide there is always a way out. It is amazing what a new decision will do to create a sense of freedom and self-confidence.

The complexities within family-owned businesses abound. This is not new information! When we get stuck in patterns that don’t work, when we don’t see a way out, when our health or ability to be present in our lives suffers, it’s important to take responsibility and do whatever is required to resolve the issue.

Sometimes taking responsibility means reaching out and getting some assistance. When our cars break down, we take them to the shop. Most of us don’t wait until they break down! We bring them in for oil changes and regular tune-ups.

Do the same for yourself and your family business. Tend to your life and the issues in the family at least as much as you would your car. Take responsibility and see what is possible!

Nancy Jonker, Ph.D, is a mindset coach serving entrepreneurs, family business owners and successful professionals. She aids family business owners in identifying leaders’ strengths, facilitating conversations and family meetings and improving team functioning.

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