Variations in Family System Boundaries

“Variations in Family System Boundaries” by Brian Distelberg, Loma Linda University, and Adrian Blow, Michigan State University, was published in the March 2011 issue of Family Business Review.

Professor Distelberg shared some background information on the article.

Who is the target audience for this article?

There are actually three target audiences that we were attempting to address in this article. The first would of course be the Family Business leader. We would hope that the article challenges leaders of Family Business (FB) to question their opinions about the level of communication within their firms. We are also hopeful that these individuals will read this article and think about the effects communication, and particularly the effect of access to family communication for nonfamily employees. All too often FB leaders see the label of “Family Business” as a deficit, and limit family involvement and especially family communication in an effort to provide a more “professional” image to nonfamily employees. While this seems logical, this study outlines a few pitfalls associated with this logic.

The second target audience is the FB Advisor. Similarly advisors might see a FB as having too large of a “family” presence. This would often come from watching family communication enter the business. While there are problems with having the family overly involved in the firm, this article highlights the limitation of having the family overly disconnected from the business. These effects, interestingly enough, rest mostly on nonfamily employees. This would probably be over looked by most advisors, as it is not the most logical conclusion.

The third target audience is actually the mental health professionals interested in FBs. Our background is in a mental health field called “Marriage and Family Therapy”. We believe that mental health professionals have a wealth of knowledge that can be transferred to FB work. In many ways we wrote this article as an advertisement to encourage more mental health professionals to look at and work with FBs.

What inspired you to be interested in this topic?

This article is a section of my (Brian Distelberg) dissertation. Prior to this study, I was training to be a Marriage and Family Therapist. During this training I ran a private practice and opened my services to a wide range of couple and family issues. For some reason many of my clients were involved in FBs. With these clients I found that very often the difficulties within their marriages and families could be traced back to difficulties within the family business. I also found that if the “therapy” involved the FB level of analysis, the process of change was much more effective. This led me to think about the functioning of families within these FBs, and with the help of some of my advisors over at Michigan State University, and colleagues at Grand Valley State University I developed a set of questions that I thought would be beneficial in exploring. Another step in the process was writing an article with Ritch Sorenson, which was published in the Family Business Review back in 2009. Ritch and the FBR editorial team really helped me solidify the key variables that needed to be examined in this study.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

When we began this study we were really interested in the owning family, particularly the level of closeness within owning families and the effect of closeness on the entire FB system. While we found some interesting relationships there, it became apparent that the typical assessments for measuring closeness were not extremely reliable with FB families. These assessments were written without FB families in mind. They are much more appropriate for nuclear families and as we know, FB families are often larger than the nuclear family lens. Given this problem, we focused more on the communication networks and used social network analysis to help us measure communication. The most interesting finding to me is that access to family communication really helps unify the FB system, and has particularly strong benefits for nonfamily employees. We didn’t really expect to see this as the strongest relationship. We really thought that the owning family closeness would be much stronger than the communication access variables. Another finding that surprised us was the effect of limiting family communication. We thought that this would have negative effect for nonfamily employees, but we didn’t expect to see the owner’s lack of awareness here. It makes sense though. If the owning family is disconnected from the FB system then they probably wouldn’t have an accurate assessment of the morale of the nonfamily employees.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

I really hope that future research looks closely at communication and specifically communication from the family members to nonfamily employees (and vice versa). Beyond this general idea I hope this article illustrates the level of analysis necessary for analyzing FB systems. I believe that the days of surveying one representative from a FB are long gone. This study clearly challenges these single representative designs. Information received from these single representative designs are only as reliable as the level of communication within the representative’s FB system. Therefore, if the representative comes from a FB system where family communication is limited, that representative is not a reliable source of information regarding the functioning of the entire FB system.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

I have a passion for research, and particularly research on families in the context of larger systems. FBs are a good example of this as FBs provide a unique situation where the family system is interdependent with the larger business system. I also do research on families living in low-income housing communities. This is another example of family systems in the context of larger systems as these family systems are interdependent with the organizations that operate these low-income communities, in most cases a branch of HUD called the Housing Authority.

How did your paper change during the review process?

This article changed quite a bit during the review process. I originally framed this article through the Three Circle Model and attempted to illustrate the communication patterns through that lens. It was an interesting way to look at the data, but the reviewers offered helpful suggestions about reframing the article through a larger systemic lens. The results are the same, just a slightly different way to look at the same results.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

This is an interesting question, I think when you do a research project you never know exactly what you’ll get, and when you have the results you always want to know more about the details surrounding the specific results. Therefore you always want to go back and add more questions. For example, I probably would have added more questions that related to governance structures and how different forms of governance related to, or predicted, the level of communication within FB systems. But to do this well the sample size would have needed to much larger. Since this was a dissertation and therefore there were timeframe and resource limitations, governance questions needed to be omitted. The nice thing about research is that you don’t have to answer every question with one study. I am hopeful that this study will be expanded on to include these governance questions.

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