Soriano: A toxic father-son relationship

·3 min read

Setting the stage for a leadership change is a frustrating experience for most founders and children of family-owned businesses. Any business owner must realize that they can never return to where they were because everything changes. Sadly, their fears of the unknown, especially their fear of yielding power to their offspring have made them refugees of the past. If you think sibling rivalry is a major challenge, think again. Close to half of our engagements in Asia involve father-son rivalry. This event unfolds when we initiate the family’s succession journey starting when an adult child is lured into the trap of joining the family business. The son’s entry causes rivalry never before experienced by the founder. As the adult child encroaches onto the founder’s territory and starts questioning the way the business is run, it now becomes a challenging event for the founder. This phase is wildly a love-hate relationship between the founder and the offspring and can signal a clear departure from a different kind of love parents bestowed on their children while young. When there is hostility, the founder transforms into an unreasonable boss that considers the adult child an adversary in the business.

Harry Levinson, a Harvard Business Review author, explicitly states that, “The fundamental psychological conflict in family businesses is rivalry, compounded by feelings of guilt, when more than one family member is involved. The rivalry may be felt by the founder when he unconsciously senses that subordinates are threatening to remove him from his center of power.” Whether real or imagined, as the pressure to share power to the offspring builds, the founder starts resisting loosening his or her hold on power. Eventually the child rebels against the constant intrusions, whimsical demands and broken promises of retirement on the part of the founder.

Levinson further explains that “the son resents being kept in an infantile role—always the little boy in his father’s eyes—with the accompanying contempt, condescension, and lack of confidence that in such a situation frequently characterize the father’s attitude. He resents, too, remaining dependent on his father for his income level and as often, for title, office, promotion, and the other usual perquisites of an executive. The father’s erratic and unpredictable behavior in these matters makes this dependency more unpalatable.”

In most cases, this interpersonal relationship involves simultaneous or alternating emotions of love and hate—something particularly common among father-son relationships. When emotions become intense, they can lead to years of hostility unless real intervention is initiated. In some cases, the conflict runs deep. An adult son once confided to me who I’ll call Tony and he described his traumatic experience with his father: “No doubt he is a successful business owner who worked a lot and was respected by his peers. We rarely see him even on weekends, but even when he was home he wasn’t available. He never bothered to tell me what kind of problems he wrestled with, and I would always second guess. There was also a total lack of empathy, and I still recall many instances where he shamed me, inflicted harsh words and judgments on me. All my life I have suffered from uncertainties and insecurities. Yes, there are times he would be excited to talk about making money, and I hated the topic as it was empty. Sadly, my relationship with my father was purely about money. I longed for parental love, but instead he showered me and my siblings with material love. When I joined the business, it was like a hellhole and I felt miserable. Up until today, every time I see him I become tense and there is rage inside.”

As founders prepare their roller coaster succession journey with their offspring, they will uncover many painful memories and intense feelings of rejection and anger, but they will have to make their way through this process with a changed mindset if they want an optimal outcome.

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