We’ve all grown up on the age-old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by it’s cover’, but how often have we tried to apply this to the various realms of life? How often do we question the apparent happy realities to scrape beneath the surface? The same idea applies to the concept of Family businesses - we look on the outside and see those magazine covers, press interviews, those tall and progressive claims, picture-perfect smiles in photoshoots it is easy to be caught up and believe that 'All is well', but do we really know the dust which lies under the carpets?
The side we neglect more often than not about Family businesses is that they tend to harbour regressive patriarchy, oppression against those perceived to be ‘weak’ or ‘lower’ on the succession pyramid, gaslighting, induce imposter syndrome, misuse of power and more - all in all, nothing short of a toxic cocktail and hellish dystopia for Mental Health and wellbeing. This piece will explore a few of these ideas and how they come into play within the dynamics of family-run businesses.
Family businesses are often not environments of equality or fairness, neither to the professionals working there nor to the very members of the family. Family members are somewhat placed on a “hierarchy of importance” with women, the younger male siblings and those who identify as LGBTQ+ at the bottom of the pyramid, irrespective of their intelligence, skills, talent or abilities. Patriarchy runs deep - if anyone from these groups, particularly the women, are fortunate to be given positions, they are more on paper, and usually done to show how progressive they are as families, to show that they are ‘flagbearers of change’, when in fact this is essentially no more than a PR and image management exercise. These position don’t come with powers, they will never be taken seriously, almost always be dismissed and said to be disruptive, illogical or senseless but all wrapped under the covers of ‘unconventional’ or ‘modern’. Being educated, being capable, being futuristic has no space in environments which thrive in harping on past glories and where leadership and capabilities are not evaluated on merit but based off questionable parameters like age, gender, flattery and spot in the inheritance ladder.
Voices asking questions, giving suggestions or recommending change are oppressed, stifled or silenced if those at the helm feel challenged or questioned, but this is often done in a very smooth manner by gaslighting and inducing imposter syndrome into the individual on the other side. When it comes to gaslighting, it is a control mechanism to coerce someone through manipulation leading them to be overly careful of what they are doing instead of recognizing what is being done to them by the oppressor (in this case, those controlling the show). In the end, oppressors would like to push the individual who is a perceived threat out of the job entirely. They want to make talent quit and disappear. That is their goal, instead of improving and learning from talent as it makes them feel small, insecure and threatened, something which oppressors find hard to digest. When it comes to imposter syndrome, this feeling can be induced in individuals either as a result of the gaslighting they have been subjected to or by constantly putting them down, taunting them or turning down their ideas flat out, all of which can contribute to feelings of incompetency and extreme self-doubt irrespective of their actual talent, intellect, capabilities and skills. There may be other cases as well where individuals perceived as a ‘threat’ (be it from the family or professionals) are thwarted through the intentional spreading of rumours, harassment or asking others in the workspace to alienate them or to not share information about the business with them. An individual no matter how talented or resilient they might be is bound to feel inferior while experiencing cognitive dissonance, self-doubt and Mental Health distress.
There’s plenty of signs of toxic workplaces, which include failing to listen, having no room for opinions, being unopen and even hypersensitive to criticism, lacking clarity and being tied up in the web of ‘It’s always been done this way’. All these signs are seen in the context of family businesses, but often ignored by others or covered up in the name of their heritage, legacy, respect for elders and having rich traditions! Furthermore, many times when it comes to paying professionals, those elders at the helm of these businesses have usually not moved on from the era of kingship, and still perceive those who are being paid by them to be their slaves. Eternal gratitude from staff for being paid salaries for their work and on time is the expected norm - how is that acceptable in the modern era? In today’s times of the pandemic, this has only become worse for professionals working in family run businesses. The sheer lack of respect is visible in tactics like unannounced pay-cuts, pushing for leave-without-pay or forced resignation without notice period which became the norm in so many age-old business houses. But these are just some of the ugly realities about family run businesses which get hidden in their ‘glittering’ histories.
These are some issues which are almost the tip of the iceberg. Keep an eye out on this space as we explore the depths of this issue which is has been ignored for so long because we feel for the happy exteriors, but as we bring these to the forefront, we can bring about change and build better, more conducive & more mental-health friendly family businesses while calling out the wrong doings of those illustrious individuals sitting at the helm of affairs.
Written by: Vedica Podar
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Disclaimer: All names of individuals and organizations have been withheld to protect the privacy. Information presented has been gathered from personal experiences, coaching sessions and research.