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Revealing relationship patterns results in better leadership

What does a business leader do when key managers simply don’t connect?

When important issues get avoided because of discomfort? 

When a high performer creates internal relationship messes? 

When an aspiring leader does not have a realistic view of him/herself?

Every leader observes relationship problems like these and has to decide —one way or another—how to respond. Often the knee-jerk response is to ignore the problem. Ignoring usually occurs because leaders don’t understand the problem or know what to do about it.

Sidestepping relationship challenges can be just as costly as ignoring other high-impact problems, such as medical symptoms. If you developed a strange lump under your armpit, how long would you wait before asking a physician to check it out? Unlike some medical problems, relationship disorders cannot be easily X-rayed and diagnosed. There’s no quick formula for determining what’s really going on.

But there is a hidden file of information for those stuck in a relationship quagmire: their own family relationship history. This seldom-consulted resource almost always sheds important light on what’s happening under the surface of a relationship issue.

Family diagrams
The most fascinating part of my job as a leadership coach is the privilege of helping clients learn about the emotional and relationship patterns in their family history.

My colleagues and I begin every client relationship with a confidential, two-hour meeting in which we learn as much as we can about four generations of the client’s family: their children, their spouse and siblings, their parents and parent’s siblings, and their grandparents and grandparents’ siblings.

As we construct their family diagrams, we discover important family facts—births, deaths, illnesses, addictions, work histories, money management, religious beliefs, geographical moves and so on.

Within that stream of facts swims a set of emotional patterns, unique to each family system, that profoundly influences how family members across generations manage relationships. Emotional patterns reveal how a family responds to relationship-relevant themes such as conflict, adversity, anxiety, immaturity, belief and personality differences, and the approval, disapproval and expectations of authority figures. 

It turns out that family emotional patterns transmit across generations, powerfully influencing how each of us functions.

Knowing about the emotional patterns in one’s family is a crucial first step in modifying how one manages relationships.

For leaders, that’s a big deal, because so much of leadership revolves around people.

I have worked with hundreds of leaders whose knowledge of family patterns helped them manage a relationship difficulty more effectively. Below, I will cite the examples of two leaders who learned how to better respond to the patterns of family cutoff and family conflict.

Relationship cutoff
Relationship cutoff happens when a family member reactively withdraws from another member and discontinues contact. A cutoff can last for years, often with far-reaching, negative impacts on the participants and their children and grandchildren.

This became the case with a leader I’ll call Joe.

Joe’s parents emigrated from Belgium to America after World War II, without money, contacts or knowledge of English. Joe and his four sisters were raised in a one-story, Flemish-speaking home, where he became his mother’s favorite and the family hero.

After three years of military service, Joe married and started a tool and die shop on the west side of Rochester. He and his wife, Connie, had four children, none of whom showed interest in the business.

Joe suffered from a distant relationship with his spouse and children. As his children grew into young adults, they began reactively separating from each other. At one point, none of the four children were on speaking terms.

Joe also had an arms-length relationship with his business partner. They spoke, but seldom about anything other than work projects and the financials of the business.

As Joe’s important relationships spiraled into emotional distance, his motivation to take a harder look at himself increased. That “look at self” began with a careful review of his family history.

He discovered that when his parents moved to the U.S., they discontinued contact with most of their respective siblings. That dramatic cutoff was always explained as a commitment to “start over in our new country.”

Joe began to pinpoint a pattern of relationship cutoff in four generations going back to his grandparents and extending to his own children. That knowledge influenced Joe to see his own powerful and automatic urge to distance.

Focusing on himself, and resisting the tendency to blame his parents, Joe undertook a series of steps to reconnect with his past and to stay in more meaningful contact with his wife, children and business partner. He credits that work with reducing his isolation and increasing the quality of his key relationships.

Conflict avoidance
A managing director of a firm (whom I’ll call Jasmine) completed a feedback process that revealed a glaring leadership weakness: Whenever a tense but important conversation needed to take place, she avoided it or delegated the task to someone else.

Jasmine initiated a string of conversations with her mother and two aunts, discovering that for generations, women on her mother’s side had avoided direct conversations about emotionally laden issues.

Many of the women married take-charge men who protected the women from having to learn effective conflict management skills. It became clear to Jasmine that her own father fit the “strong man” profile.

Over many months, Jasmine worked on “standing up” to her parents by raising uncomfortable issues, one involving the early death of her father’s brother.

The bottom line for Jasmine was not that she was too fragile to deal with conflict. Rather, she simply had not exercised the emotional muscles required to initiate difficult conversations. Her leadership took a sharp turn towards progress when Jasmine became determined to view conflicts as “practice workouts.”

The above examples suggest that most of relationship functioning is automatic, with long roots into the past. Discovering family relationship patterns gives leaders a strong advantage in self-awareness that can benefit their children and employees in powerful ways.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected]

12/4/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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