Do you feel guilty? In family business, you’re not alone. Explore why…

In this podcast, Don Opatrny and Keith Michaelson explore the way guilty feelings are operating for many in family business both in normal times and as they attempt to respond to the challenges presented by COVID-19.

In our work with business owning families, we often talk with family members who have become deeply conflicted by feelings of guilt. They may feel guilty about their prosperity at a time when others are suffering; they may experience ongoing guilt about receiving, through inheritance, the benefits of the hard work of their parents or grandparents; they may feel guilty about opportunities given to them rather than to other family members; or they may express feelings of guilt about taking over management positions long held by members of the senior generation. These and many other examples of the disturbing experience of a guilty conscience are commonly shared by our clients. 

Members of a family business are connected through overlapping layers of relationship. They may be acting as a boss one minute, and a father the next; a board member one day, and a sister the next; a mother during one phone call, and a shareholder on the next. In all of these configurations, relationship needs which are fundamental to all of us interact in a complex way. Three fundamental needs regulated by the experience of a “guilty conscience” are: 

  • The need to belong, and to be accepted and bonded with loved ones.
  • The need to maintain a balance of giving and taking, and to find an equilibrium that feels fair, through an ongoing process of exchange.
  • The need for predictability and safety and for order in social convention, often carefully calibrated over years of learning “the way we do things around here.”  

It’s helpful to understand that the experience of feeling guilt or innocence is an important tool for navigating among these needs, particularly as we make difficult choices. The “conscience” operates like an inner organ continually discriminating between what serves and what hinders relationships. Just like the eye is continually sensing light and dark, our conscience uses feelings of guilt or innocence to track how we feel in each of our relationships and where conflicting loyalties mean feeling guilty and innocent at the same time.  What makes a daughter feel innocent with her parents might make her feel guilty with her husband.  What makes a brother feel innocent with his sibling shareholders during an emergency financial meeting might make him feel guilty as a manager discussing plans for a layoff. Family business systems succeed and relationships thrive when family members balance their own needs with the needs of others. They become dysfunctional and destructive when they don’t. 

Our needs to belong, to balance giving and taking, and to remain in the safety of social convention work together to maintain the family business system. But each need strives toward its own aims with its own particular feelings of guilt and innocence.  

Guilt feels like exclusion and fear of alienation when belonging is endangered by some action.  When we behave in a way that serves belonging, we feel innocence as intimate inclusion and closeness even if others outside the group might be harmed. When the group is focused on changes, the “rules” governing acceptable behavior also change and what serves belonging to one group, often makes one feel guilty in another.  

Guilt feels like indebtedness, obligation or entitlement when giving and receiving are not in balance.  When we are in balance, we feel innocence as fullness or freedom. Giving more than one takes can lead one to feel strong and entitled while a receiver in this exchange often feels indebted.  

Guilt feels like transgression or fear of consequences when one deviates from a group’s social norms.  The feeling of innocence with respect to the rules of group functioning can manifest as loyalty or fidelity, even while the implications for those outside the group could be costly.  

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