Generation to Generation, Behavioral Drives Are Different
By John Broer

“A chip off the old block” is not an uncommon phrase to hear when it comes to a family business when referencing the next generation of company leadership. That phrase can be misleading, however. It may suggest that the next generation is a virtual carbon copy of the previous one, which may present all kinds of challenges in the workplace because it usually is inaccurate. It may be incorrectly assumed that the traits of the more senior leader have automatically transferred to the heir apparent. Certainly some similarities are to be expected; often there’s enough difference to create tension, stress, burnout and even resentment. This is where the science of behavior can help explain why these differences exist and how they can serve as strengths instead of roadblocks.

Human behavior is a fascinating thing. Our inherent drives can usually be traced back to our earliest years. Many psychologists agree that by the age of 10, these drives and characteristics are fairly well established and we spend the next several decades fine-tuning them. It stands to reason that these traits are influenced by our parents and our surroundings. Rather than focus on whether our behaviors are based in “nature” or if they are “nurtured” by other factors, it is enough to know our behaviors simply exist. That fact alone should encourage us to gain a better understanding of our own behavior and an appreciation for the behavior of others and how it impacts the way we work together.

When looking at the science of behavior, it is always the hope that people find ways to complement each other rather than compete, but whenever we look at conflicts in the workplace (or otherwise), the root of it is in behavioral differences that just aren’t explored. How does this work in the context of a family business?

First, we should provide some context for discussing how behavior plays a role in our daily interactions. It is an indisputable fact that we all have behaviors and we bring them with us to work. You cannot NOT behave. Whether behaviors serve the greater good is another question, but they are definitely present. Behaviors are manifestations of needs that are, in turn, manifestations of our natural drives.

We must also have a better understanding of natural behavior vs. adapted behavior. Some people feel that they have to act differently at work either because of the expectations of others or the workplace itself. This can be a significant source of stress and potential burnout for people. When we are expected to be someone other than the person we naturally are, stress and anxiety can set in very easily. That’s also a double-edged sword because no one wants to be perceived as weak or incapable of dealing with stressful situations. When people begin to understand the differences between natural and adapted behavior, they will also begin to understand “why” they feel the need to be someone they are not and perhaps start to draw on their natural strengths and find a better way to fit into the organization. This also challenges organizations to be more flexible when it comes to maximizing someone’s natural talents.

We worked with a family-owned business whose founder had very distinctive drives. He was strong-willed and assertive, often to the point of being aggressive and intimidating. His mission was focused on how to move the company forward in a very entrepreneurial way because that’s how it started. He would drive things forward no matter what roadblocks stood in the way. His son, the successor to the leadership position, had a very different set of drives. He was naturally more collaborative and friendly. He enjoyed teaming up with people versus taking a more individualistic role. He didn’t mind being challenged about his ideas and actually looked at it as an opportunity to engage in some healthy dialogue about how things could be done differently. This characteristic was not shared by his father who would become irritated when challenged about anything. As a result, the pressure from the father on the son to be tougher on the staff actually resulted in the son experiencing ulcers.

He was able to cope and manage the health issues, but the strain between leadership styles percolated under the surface until the father reinserted himself back into the business because he didn’t like the way his son was managing things. It wasn’t because the son’s results weren’t favorable. On the contrary, the team the son was developing was branching out into new markets and tapping into new technology that would expand the company’s capabilities. Ego played a role in the company’s dynamics, and it had a dramatic impact on how the company functioned and its ultimate direction. The two behavioral styles could have complemented each other if properly managed, but instead they served to split the strategic direction of the company and, as a result, the company itself split. One half to the father and the other to the son.

Behavioral differences were not the only factors contributing to the split. There were financial and logistical elements at play, but the chasm created by the behavioral differences made it impossible to reach a common understanding of how to build the business together so they chose to run two smaller businesses separately. When we can use science to better understand these unique behaviors, people can have more substantive and healthier discussions. Businesses preparing for (or in the midst of) generational transition can take a lot from this example. When you unpack the elements of human behavior with tools that keep things objective, you can discover more ways to work together than apart.

About the Author

John Broer of IN2GREAT in Toledo, Ohio, is a seasoned speaker who has developed and coached thousands of business professionals. As a Certified Analyst of The Predictive Index, he is able to provide audiences with a scientific understanding of what makes them ‘tick’ and how to look at their development differently.