Communication Key to Productivity in Family Business

by | Nov 27, 2017 | Family Dynamics

(by John Berry, Penn State Extension, as originally appeared at

Many professionals tell us a family business typically outperforms a similar business that is not family owned and operated.

A key reason for this productivity difference is the attention a family gives to ensure the business is capable of being economically viable today and into the future.

Of special interest to the current owners of a family business, perhaps, is the development of the next owner(s), who will continue to guide the business.

Let’s consider a quote attributed to Henry Ford, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Was Ford sharing some insight on how we as family business owners might drive the continued success of our own enterprises?

Developing effective communications is one method to ensure the various people in your business share a point of view and for you actually hearing it.

I am certain we have all heard about communication and its effect on family harmony and business success. The challenge for many is how to implement effective communication.

As Sherry Herwig, director of the Wisconsin School of Business’s Family Business Center, reports, there are four ways we might see family communications break down:

  • Criticism — A generalization of the issue that typically attacks one’s character instead of a specific problem. “You always” or “you never” often start the conversation.
  • Contempt — Outwardly conveying disgust or disrespect with the intention to hurt another. Insults, eye-rolling, smirking, avoiding eye contact and hostility are all regular examples.
  • Defensiveness — The natural tendency when faced with criticism or contempt is to return anger with anger or blame with blame. It’s a victim’s mentality that leads to continued communication problems. The defensive party feels justified and wants to prove a point instead of listening and rising above the conflict.
  • Stonewalling — One party withdraws and disengages, usually feeling overwhelmed, exhausted or that the conversation no longer matters. Stonewalling is a signal of serious issues as one person withdraws from the relationship.

Recent Penn State research on family communications by Matt Kaplan confirms that it is hard to have effective communication when family members are unwilling to discuss key issues related to the future of the farm, or are unaware or intolerant of one another’s positions.

At a basic level, the relevant parties need to have an interest in learning more about each other’s situations and viewpoints.

As Kaplan points out, “Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The underlying question is: communicate about what? In some families, even figuring out what to communicate about can be a communication challenge.”

John Berry is a Penn State Extension educator who specializes in farm management succession and commodity marketing.