Soriano: Why do siblings fight for control and money?

·3 min read

We remember this line by Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt, “Siblings are our partners and rivals, our first friends, and our first enemies.”

I was asked a question in a Family Forum in Barcelona if there are conflict prevention mechanisms among family members especially among siblings, and my reply surprised some of the family members present: “It is not conflict prevention but conflict management. When you look at it, most family conflicts are healthy expressions of dissatisfaction or dissent and it should be encouraged. How? By way of getting the issue out in the open through honest communication.” There is no way conflict can be prevented. However, the true test of a family’s resolve to harmonize relationships is on how they can collectively de-escalate any misunderstanding, diffuse the tension and objectively address the issue no matter how sensitive it is. The more difficult and complicated the issues are, the more family members must strive to communicate and talk about it. And the best way to address it is through solid, enforceable governance agreements. Every agreement signed provides mechanisms on how to navigate and mitigate conflict.

Cain and Abel is the first story of sibling rivalry. There are sibling rivalries that are superficial, others border on the competitive nature of the family, while some siblings sue each other over money. On rare occasions, others resort to murder. For many family members, they live out their days amid a frigid silent treatment. But all too often we failed to understand where the deep and destructive conflict came into existence.

Ambani vs Ambani

When Reliance Industries founder Dhirubhai Ambani died in 2002 without a will, his older son, Mukesh, took over the company as chairman while his younger son, Anil, was made vice-chairman. Mukesh then reportedly tried to push Anil off the board, and tension between the siblings turned into an ugly legal battle, resulting in a de-merger of the company led by the brothers’ mother in 2005.

For the next five years the brothers continued to wage war against one another, both in and out of court, until their mother intervened again, this time issuing a noncompete agreement between the two in 2010. What really happened? What triggered the conflict? Without a doubt the main reason was the founder simply procrastinated. At the time of his death in 2002, Forbes ranked him the 138th richest person in the world, with an estimated net worth of US$2.9 billion. He believed that there was substantial wealth to be divided among the children. He was correct about the size of his wealth, but he was totally wrong in believing that money would be the only source that would cause sibling conflict.

The siblings had visceral, deep-seated issues that stemmed from their childhood days, and the founder failed to act on it.

Learnings

A well-respected and leading family business advisor, Dean Fowler highlights a critical element in any family conflict involving children: “The rivalry between siblings actively involved in a family-owned business takes two different forms: emotional and strategic. To find solutions to resolve conflicts among brothers and sisters in family businesses, one must first determine if the rivalry is emotional or strategic or some combination of both.”

I second what Dean Fowler said. And if I may inject additional learnings, “Why are united families successful and less prone to conflict? The answer lies in three things. They have a unifying goal, they communicate openly and formally and they always think about the next generation (clearly beyond their lifetime), and the leaders are smart enough to set up rules and act on them while the family members are getting along and while they are still active.

Believe me, just embracing the three elements can save a family business years even decades of heartache.

To be continued...