Family Business Matters

Betrayal: The Emotional Malady of Family Businesses

By Tom Hubler, Executive Consultant

There may be no more debilitating force than betrayal when it occurs in a family business. Poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” That’s because every betrayal begins with trust. It is “a violence against confidence,” an inside job. In my experience, it ranks as a top destroyer of otherwise successful business families.

In this article, I provide some examples of how family business betrayals can occur, what happens thereafter and how to avoid them all together.

There’s no going back.

As a technical definition, betrayal breaks or violates a presumed contract of trust and confidence, creating moral and psychological conflict in a relationship between individuals, organizations or both.

But this cool, reasoned description misses its intensity. Of all possible tragedies in life (except the death of a loved one), betrayal can wound more painfully than things physical; pierce more deeply than things emotional; devastate love, trust, and loyalty beyond what would seem endurable. When betrayal occurs among family members engaged in a family business, the loss can be unimaginable. I have witnessed its crushing effects many times. Here’s one of them:

Jack fires his daughter

Jack was mentoring his 33-year-old daughter, Meredith, in the family business, where she had worked for five years and gained his confidence.

Years earlier, Jack divorced his wife, Leslie, (Meredith’s mother) and remarried. As time passed, Leslie became unhappy with the divorce settlement and decided to take Jack back to court. During the settlement dispute, Meredith told her mother some private, sensitive financial information about Jack’s business. Jack was shocked and distraught by that betrayal, and promptly fired Meredith. Their father-daughter relationship was shattered and to this day, they won’t talk to each other.... MORE
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