The Rhinehart/Hancock tragedy is a classic example of an out of control family conflict.
Despite spending many millions of dollars on lawyers and other advisers for “suppression and rectification” the family is heading for a very public and terminal meltdown. The conflict has seen the utter trashing of the family’s reputation, and the enormous loss of face and commercial opportunity for the family business – which it seems will never again be trusted by Chinese and other customers who take the concept of family loyalty very seriously.
The lady who, not so long ago, wanted to be voted a national treasure seems to have lost the plot. No amount of money will buy back her family, or her credibility in the eyes of ordinary folk.
No doubt some children are bad to the bone for reasons that cannot readily be explained. But after more than 20 years of dealing with family conflicts I’m convinced that the overwhelming majority can be traced back and attributed to parenting actions and styles (or their absence).
It seems that more than a few of today’s parents suffered abuse at the hands of their own parents and, despite their utter condemnation of that treatment, they have themselves dealt out some form of abuse to their own children. Where the original abuse was usually physical, recent forms are more likely to be psychological. Parents often don’t realise they’re doing it because they’ve followed the only parenting model they’ve experienced first hand – but these actions can cause profound damage.
This can create major problems in succession processes, especially when parents blame their children for being incapable and inadequate rather than seeing themselves as the prime cause of their immaturity, insecurity, low personal resilience or weak self-esteem.
Then there’s the ‘absent parent’ – the ones who simply weren’t around as their kids grew up because they were so busy building the business – always for the benefit of the family. The absence of any useful parental role model forces impressionable children to take whatever they can find to help them understand the universe, and their place in it. This can turn out well, or badly, it’s pure chance.
Absentee parents often suffer lashings of guilt that later manifests itself in favouritism, sibling rivalry, over-protectiveness, handouts (that produce “trustafarians”), unbalanced and contestable wills, and many other problems.
So how do you prevent conflicts from developing within families?
What starts with parenting continues through every aspect of the family’s operating style and systems. While there are no guarantees of anything happening (or not happening) in any family, there are things that can be done to minimise the risk of conflict. I call them the golden rules of conflict prevention, and here’s a summary:
1. ‘Think right’ as opposed to ‘rights thinking’
There’s no place in a normal family’s life for litigation. A family that has strong and admirable values has all the guidelines it needs to do the right things, the right way, at the right times.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
Families that communicate openly, honestly and transparently develop superior conflict prevention and management capabilities. Those that practise the proverbial ‘stiff upper lip’ are usually woefully unprepared for dealing with emotional tensions.
3. Nurture balanced relationships.
Balanced relationships are strong, respectful and trusting. Their positivity enables them to deal with almost any problems.
4. Solve problems now – don’t prevaricate.
Almost every conflict could have been painlessly resolved if addressed at an early, less toxic stage. Delay is your enemy.
5. Be wise and fair… and don’t confuse equity with equality.
Treating each family member equally, without any form of conscious consideration, is often a cop out from making more appropriate decisions.
6. Share and nurture your values and visions.
Families that know what they stand for, where everyone knows where they’re going and what’s expected of them, are the peaceful ones.
7. Encourage and reward personal effort and contribution.
Admirable families encourage active participation and contribution from their members – to put in more than they take out. Takers are called “trustafarians” – family members who rely on trust account handouts and put little back in return.
8. Think stewardship, not ownership.
Families that live by long-term stewardship principles (looking after the family’s assets for the benefit of current and future generations, rather than using them solely for their own benefit) create a sense of destiny and responsibility that helps them avoid deep conflicts.
9. Know yourself.
Self and collective awareness denote high levels of emotional intelligence, which aids empathy. This is seriously to be desired and carefully nurtured in all family members.
The Rinehart tragedy is proof that money doesn’t buy happiness. In that case litigation and confidential arbitration are both paths to inevitable disaster, being examples of rights thinking. Their only hope for family salvation lies in a negotiated reconciliation for the whole family, where everyone proves they can think right and act right. Regrettably, I’m not hopeful.
Jon Kenfield is an accredited family business adviser with The Solutionist Group and author of The Solutionist Guide to Family Business.