Illustration by Suneesh K.
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The best business partners come to the table with a sense of competitiveness, even against each other, but when it’s all playing out between siblings, the cuts and jabs can begin to feel a little personal. With family businesses contributing to 79 per cent of GDP in India, of which 108 are publicly listed family-owned companies, whether you’re an Ambani, Hinduja, the Essar brothers, a Nikhil and Nithin Kamath, or the host of brothers founding start-ups, we could all do with a break from our best bros.
Sibling rivalry finds its origins in the vying for parental affections and attention. The causal conditions vary depending on the age of the child, from social skills to a sense of fairness, a need for independence and age differences between the siblings. In India, it is also influenced by gender norms and differentiation of roles within the family which can go either way. For example, within a family, the son might be given more freedom, but the parents might be more demonstratively affectionate or forgiving towards the daughter (or older vs younger child), and both treatments can ignite a vying for equality. The degree of rivalry is influenced by personal temperament, home atmosphere, culture, and a host of other factors.
The deepest level of conflict within family-run businesses arise from inter-familial conflicts. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the most successful businessmen in the US are the ones who have built their own businesses, but they also face the most personal rivalries, with an intensity that professional managers do not face.
A core reason for the rise of such professional sibling rivalry is a lack of resolution of personal differences prior to working together. When you don’t resolve the personal issues but enter a workplace which creates an expectation of formal behaviour in the professional domain, you are pushing the unresolved issues under the carpet, where they tend to simmer.
What workplaces mean by professional behaviour is effectively unemotional behaviour. This tends towards efficiency because we are able to make the tough decisions, receive feedback, and deliver and receive criticism without taking it personally. However, the expectation itself is flawed because human beings do not work and function in silos. We cannot beyond a point separate our personal and professional sides. If we’re having a bad day, or live in a toxic environment, it’s going to come up in our workplace in one way or another, either lack of focus or motivation, speed, efficiency, etc. The only people who manage to separate them are those who suppress their feelings and while that might work for a while, it eventually erupts as stress and various physical and mental health illnesses, ranging from PCOD to migraines and back aches to cardiac diseases, if not outright burnout and breakdown. That happens with unrelated people, too. But when we’re family, the eruptions are more unfiltered. It’s hard to get past the emotional attachments and disappointments. And we’re constantly trying to outdo each other or live up to expectations.
This is compounded when we tend to consider our works as an extension of our personality and identity. Edwin A. Hoover, author of Getting Along in Family Business: The Relationship Intelligence Handbook says a fault line is knowing each other so well, you can’t hear what the other is saying. It’s like reading those trick sentences so quickly you miss the double ‘the’ in them. We carry our biases, prejudices, expectations with us that we see and hear what we are expecting to see and hear, and are not really being objective. We set expectations for our siblings based not just on their past but on our past interactions with them.
What we need to do is be able to approach siblings afresh and set independent expectations. When we are see our siblings as whole and multifaceted, with their own individual needs of identity and self esteem, we reboot the relationship with respect.