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Relationship Triangles in the Family Business

Tristan and his younger brother, Cedric, work in a real estate business founded and led by their dad, Ken.

Tristan sees himself as an incessant learner and hard worker. He wants to lead the business someday.

Tristan claims that Cedric doesn’t work as hard, yet enjoys equal ownership shares. “Ced thinks he’s entitled, that’s what bothers me the most.”

Cedric avoids conversations with Tristan. “My older brother thinks his way is the only way. He needs to get off his high horse and stop talking down to me.”

Notice how each of these brothers believes he knows what the other is thinking!

Tristan and Cedric independently criticize one another to their father. Ken wishes they would “grow up and get along.” Ken doesn’t want to discuss who will lead the company in the future, because he believes neither of his sons would agree to stay if the other was in charge.

Without explicitly knowing it, Ken and his two sons are functioning in a relationship triangle.

When two family members can no longer contain their emotional reactions, either – or both – might involve a third person, to form an intense threesome. This triangle provides an emotional outlet for the anxiety of those who are most reactive, in this case, Tristan and Cedric.

Venting to their father helps both Tristan and Cedric calm down. Each typically feels lighter after discharging their frustration to their dad. It’s a classic Sibling Rivalry Triangle.

But rather than facing the problem, it is simply transferred to Ken, who absorbs it in the form of worry and preoccupation.

As a result of involving their father in a triangle, the sons don’t directly address or resolve their frustrations with one another.

Managing triangles requires awareness of the triangle, plus the skill to respond thoughtfully, not reactively.

If you work in a family business, you know that the strong sense of belonging among family members can pose both challenges and benefits. Family members often evoke our strongest emotional responses – excitement and joy, as well as anger and resentment.

Ironically, the business advantage of family closeness can become a threat when emotional reactivity kicks in.

Relationship triangles dance to the beat of anxiety. Triangles happen in all families. In family businesses, mismanaging triangles can imperil the business.

Family business triangles take many forms. Some are common, like the Sibling Rivalry Triangle described above.

Other common family business triangles include:

The Invasive Parent Triangle, when an adult child, upset with the parent/majority owner, vents her frustrations to the spouse of the owner, who takes sides and makes the situation worse.

The Consultant/Advisor Triangle, when an unaware outside advisor “gets in the middle” between two business-owning family members, trying to solve their problem.

The Non-Family Manager Triangle, when a key leader in the family business who’s not a family member becomes the conversation buffer between two family members.

No matter what form a family triangle takes, here are some guidelines for managing yourself in the relationship:

Reduce Your Tendency to:

  1. Solve, fix, or lecture.

  2. Take responsibility for another’s problem.

  3. Carry another person’s message to a third party.

  4. Provide emotional protection in a way that feeds helplessness.

  5. Insert yourself when uninvited.

  6. Take sides.

Sharpen Your Focus:

  1. Stay neutral and avoid “getting in the middle.”

  2. Ask each party genuinely curious questions to promote thinking.

  3. Encourage others to get the backstory to better understand the problem.

  4. Avoid taking responsibility for a problem that belongs to others.

  5. Help each party consider his/her part in the problem. Discourage blame.

  6. Tolerate exclusion – your involvement might not be necessary.

Participants in family triangles usually don’t realize what’s going on. Seeing the triangle, and learning how to manage it, can stabilize relationships, minimize conflict, and reduce disruptions to the business.


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