Business Today

The shrink's perspective

Family businesses are families first and businesses thereafter, argue two Insead professors.

R. Sridharan | Print Edition: April 6, 2008

Family Business on the Couch
Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries & Randel S. Carlock with Elizabeth Florent-Treacy
John Wiley & Sons
Pp: 297
Price: Rs 1,853

As corporate India’s most high profile family drama in recent times, the Ambani feud, unfolded over a nearly two-year period, business media faithfully reported every move and counter move from the two camps. What almost no one bothered to investigate was the underlying reason for the two brothers’ estrangement. That the fight was over control of companies, the wives could not see eye to eye or that there were powerful and ambitious executives on both sides egging on the protagonists, etc., were duly reported. But those were the manifestations of a problem that had long been simmering. So, what did the media miss about the sibling feud at India’s largest family-ownedand-managed business empire? Apparently, the shrink’s perspective.

In Family Business on the Couch, two Insead professors argue that it’s not sufficient to apply traditional measures of business performance to family businesses. Instead, a psychological perspective is necessary to understand how and why family businesses work the way they do. “When insight into individual behaviour is combined with a family systemic view, we arrive at a rich understanding of what makes business families such powerful creative and destructive forces,” they write in the preface to the book.

Let’s take a quick look at their psychoanalysis of the Ambani wrangle before we move on: “Probably, underlying the brothers’ problems may have been the absence of a safe ‘holding environment’ provided by the parents, resulting in feelings of not having received a fair share of attention from one or both of them. It may have accentuated the rivalrous feelings between the brothers that remained submerged as long as the father was alive. With his death, the ‘containment’ provided by the father was no longer there and the submerged conflicts came to the surface”.

The Ambani brothers are hardly the only business family scions to have fought over control. Be it India or any other part of the world, family businesses inevitably end up getting fragmented as they move from one generation to another. As the size of the family grows, the number of claimants who want to control things increases. A split, then, is the way families tend to deal with such situations. In Family Business, the authors begin by offering a psychological perspective on business families, their weaknesses and strengths and go on to offer two conceptual tools—the genogram and the Circumplex model—to diagnose “family entanglements”.

The book is fascinating simply because few management thinkers have tried to put family businesses on the couch; to understand them and their successes and failures through the complex human dynamics that lurk behind their every move. Not just business families, but even professionals, shareholders, and vendors would benefit from recognising family businesses for what they are: families first, a business thereafter.

The Opposable Mind
Roger Martin
Harvard Business School Press
Pp: 210
Price: $26.95 (Rs 1,078)

Best decisions are children of careful consideration. It’s when one has weighed all options and reconciled some conflicting ideas as well that one arrives at the best possible decision. It is this ability, “to hold two opposing ideas in their minds at once, and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but improves on each”, that separates the geniuses from the average Joe. And Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, calls this process “integrative thinking”. This sort of thinking, he argues, allows decision makers to go beyond either-or situations, and come up with decisions that reduce trade-offs to a bare minimum.

The best leaders are naturally good at such integrative thinking. In The Opposable Mind, Martin, a former Monitor Group consultant, delves into the minds of successful people to come up with an integrative thinking framework that other, more ordinary, mortals can employ. He offers three tools: generative reasoning, causal modelling, and assertive inquiry. It wouldn’t be much fun if this review were to reveal what these tools entail, save to say that they’ll almost certainly enable you to go beyond the sort of reasoning taught at most B-schools. In a world that’s getting complex, integrative thinking may be something every manager needs to succeed.

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