Communication styles in the workplace – Building and operating a successful family business
The Markson Family Construction Business Story, Part 1.
Building and operating a successful family business is not always an easy task. Any family dynamic is complex, and even when it is not contentious on the surface, there may be underlying issues that will prevent it from reaching its full potential.
Let's take, for example, the case of Markson Contracting, a first-generation family-run construction company operating in Costa Mesa, California. The founder and patriarch, Joe Markson, is in his 70s. A self-made man, he built his company from scratch and became very successful. But hard work over many decades has taken their toll on his body.
Joe knows that it's soon going to be time to hand over the reins to his three sons, Eric, Adam, and Joey. Because they have worked in the business all their lives, he has generally left it up to them to run the day-to-day and spends most of his time focusing on his health.
At the age of 53, Eric is the eldest and would seem like the logical choice to run the company. However, Eric is resentful and distrustful of his younger siblings. Eric spends a lot of time just trying to “be the boss” and hold sway over operations, using criticism and contempt against them, even when it's unfounded.
Although they joined the family business later in life, Joey and Adam are hard workers. Joey has a degree in IT engineering and is largely responsible for choosing and implementing software and systems that help them compete with other contractors in their area.
Unfortunately, Eric has an inherent distrust of technology and constantly challenges the solutions Joey brings to the table.
Adam functions as a job-site project manager. Though he does a good job and is well-liked by their customers, Adam is often undermined by Eric's interference, which leads to conflict and delays. As a result, there is difficulty obtaining new business because they are always behind in schedule. Often, Eric will dig in his heels just to spite Adam, who then has to suffer the fallout.
Despite the constant conflict, Joe continues to allow Eric to run the day-to-day, hoping that things will eventually settle.
At this stage, every critical business decision is driven by conflict and personality. There is no mentorship, no clear succession plan, as Joe seems content to allow his sons to bicker their way through each day. They don't communicate well, and there is no consensus or overarching plan to move them forward.
Where do they go from here?
Recognizing Negative Communication Styles
Dr. John Gottman, a pioneering therapist, identifies four negative communication styles that he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a series of negative behaviors that are disastrous to any relationship.
While Gottman is best known for marriage counseling, the same principles apply here. Referring to the approach as “The Four Horsemen” is totally appropriate, as it is a metaphor for the “end of times.”
Negative Communication Style #1: Criticism
Complaints are one thing. Criticism is entirely another. A complaint focuses on a specific issue, while criticism attacks the person or their character. When criticized, people feel like they are under attack, rejected, and hurt. When there are close family dynamics in play, this behavior can escalate quickly.
Eric criticizes Adam's decisions on the job site. He also attacks and ridicules Joey's attempts to digitize their operations. He fails to consider the underlying issues that lead them to the decisions they make and uses criticism to keep them in line. No progress is made in any direction.
Negative Communication Style #2: Contempt
Contempt takes criticism to another level. Contempt mocks, ridicules, disrespects, and disregards, either with words, deeds, or gestures, meant to make the recipient feel worthless and inept.
Criticism attacks the person, but contempt attacks their moral character and assumes a superior position.
Eric shows great contempt towards Adam on the job site. If anything goes wrong whatsoever, he calls Adam out, and usually in front of the customer. Several times, Eric has made Adam feel so worthless that he simply walked off the job. Adam believes there will come a day when he walks away and does not return.
Negative Communication Style #3: Defensiveness
Defensiveness is simply self-protection in the face of an attack. Usually, it's a counterattack that casts blame on an event, circumstance, or another person. When we are unfairly accused, we tend to look for anything that will make the attacker back off. When we are defensive, nobody is taking responsibility, and the conflict continues to escalate.
When Joey purchased and deployed a construction management software platform, Eric did not want to use it. As a result, he missed some critical client communications, and a serious conflict ensued between the customer and Markson. Eric blamed Joey when actually it was his fault for refusing to learn the software that the rest of the company was using.
Negative Behavior #4: Stonewalling
Stonewalling is generally a response to contempt. The object of contempt withdraws, does not respond, or shuts down completely in response to the attack. To the person under attack, it might seem like the only way to act. Keep in mind that stonewalling usually happens when attacks have been sustained over a period of time. It's a feeling of being completely overwhelmed to the point where rational discussion is not possible. Walking away might even make things worse, but sometimes it's the only way to make things stop.
Adam's anger with Eric over his constant attacks on the job site has led to a lot of bad feelings between the brothers. Sadly, it has seeped into his family life as well, and now he has a tough time facing issues with any family member, not just Eric.
What Happens Now?
While there is no rational excuse for such bad behavior, we also shouldn't expect that just because we are family, all should be forgiven. The brothers' feud is not unusual, but what's missing here is some oversight by Markson Sr.
Had Joe been more involved in shaping his sons' respective roles and instilling a sense of shared mission, they may not have reached the point that they are at right now.
Is there no going back? How can this situation be repaired?
Reach out today to speak to me about how to scale and secede your family business.