The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by  Priscilla Du Preez  on  Unsplash

The term “death-trap” comes to mind when I see this . . . but maybe that’s just me. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

A Personal Confession

Rollercoasters evoke fear for me. There, I admitted it. It's not that the action of the rollercoaster—speed, erupt changes in direction or height—cause me fear, they don’t, it's the notion that these mechanical wonders . . . are mechanically complex machines . . . and complex machines . . . break.

Having admitted my fear, now, maybe, you will understand why the idea of “having a good time,” in my world, does not involve strapping myself to one of these mechanical devices; indeed, it would take just the right motivation (force?) to get me to risk of becoming a passenger. You may also, having realized the basis of my fear, be able to reason with me that my fear is irrational, and perhaps even in a way that gets me to reconsider my fear. After all, I do fly on airplanes. Oh, and yes, I have ridden rollercoasters in the past.

But, in the future? Probably not. For me a rollercoaster ride it is a waste of time and money. There is no “up-side” for me. I don’t get a thrill from riding. There is no “fun.” I’m long past the age of doing something I don’t like just to prove to others—or myself—that I’m not afraid. The motivator is going to have to be pretty good to get me to change.

Fear . . . and Holding on

If you got me on a rollercoaster and you were an astute observer, you might notice my discomfort. Nervous conversation, keen observation of the attendant locking the bar . . . subtle clues to my fear. Fear makes us want to “hold on” to what ever object seems to promise to save us from the feared outcome. A child will clutch to the seat or the safety bar or the parent,. an adult may simply hold on nonchalantly as possible but give away their fear when they “stiffen” with anxiety as the car moves over the course.

This fear and the natural tendency to “hold on”, reminds me of struggles I see in leadership transitions and particularly in Family Businesses—where the senior generation is holding on to the business and the younger generation is anxious to take over the controls.

So let's talk about the pertinent question from the younger generation's point of view . . . 

Why won't they let go?  

Ever had to "take the keys away" from an aging parent? Not so easy. For my family it was prompted by a few minor “accidents” over the course of one year followed by our local mechanic telling us that he intervened when one of my parents left the vehicle “in gear” and “bouncing against the concrete barrier” at a local store. He opened the car door, stepped on the brake, and put the car in “park.” Obviously, it was time.

So, why won't they give those keys up? Especially given all the alternatives for transportation? Family members reassure them that they will be taken wherever they want to go. There are offers to pay for assistance. Uber, Lyft, and other services are readily available in some cases. Still, they don’t want to hand over the keys.

Once the transition is accomplished—voluntarily or not—the senior often complains, repeatedly, about the inconvenience of not having their independent transportation and may have to be reminded about the reasons the keys were handed over . . . repeatedly. But, too often this difficult transition is made even more difficult because we think this should be a simple transition based on a logical analysis of the risks, right? Well, for many, it’s not.

Photo by  Laura Gariglio  on  Unsplash

It's a funny thing about humans . . . “Keys aren't just keys.” Those keys represent much more. The senior may see them as “my independence, my freedom, my way of not feeling like a burden to others, my way of helping” . . . there are deep emotional ties that make what seems like a simple exchange, become a complex path to navigate. John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington, coined the phrase “dreams within conflict” to describe how, at the root of conflict, there often is a dream that is being unrealized or threatened. Not realizing the threat to that dream makes the senior’s resistance irrational—and invites unfavorable judgements of “stubbornness, controlling, emotional, etc.”

For my mom, as an example, I think that giving up the keys meant that she would worry about being a “burden” to others—anathema to her self-sacrificing consideration of others—in depending on them for rides.

Turning over a business

Why won't the parent’s let go?  After more than two decades working intimately with families, I can sum it up in a word: Fear. (Leaders of all stripes are, too often, Managing by Fear . . . and family firms are no different. In fact, “close-systems”—such as family business where there are more emotional ties—are more likely to be affected by management by fear at critical points during their development!)

What fear? Fear that . . . 

  • the change/transition will make things worse

  • the transition will place a burden on their children

  • their own value and self-worth will be lost

  • spending more time with intimate relationships will make life more difficult

  • the business itself will struggle or fail

  • their departure as a leader will, some how, harm the family

  • fear that leaving will expose some personal weaknesses

One of the barriers to moving beyond this transition point, is that people are not very insightful about what is motivating their family member’s actions. The aging parent may think, "They are making too big a deal about this!" or "They just want my car!" . . . and their defensiveness, often becomes the excuse to redirect themselves from their own fear. The children do the same. “They won’t ever let go!” or “They want to keep control!” hides fears of not being trusted, anxieties about performance, and other issues. But back to the parents . . .

Find the Dream . . . and Address the Fear

Tied to each of these “fears” is a dream. The senior’s dreams that the change will not make things worse for the family, the employees, or the business. That there will still be a valuable role that the parent can occupy within the family or children’s lives. That family relationships will improve or at least not be damaged in the transition. That the business will continue to grow and succeed.

Helping the parent with the transition includes a couple of important steps.

First, they may need help in recognizing and stating their underlying dreams—taking care to both acknowledge the ones tied to the business role and not neglecting dreams that are not connected to the business**—and recognizing that there may be inherent conflicts within the dreams. For example, the senior may want to travel more, have less stress or responsibility and at the same time want to be present to make sure the burden on the younger generation is not too great to handle.

Second, they may need a well-defined process of addressing the fears and supporting movement toward making risk/reward decisions . . . normalizing and challenging the fears—that can help them get “unstuck” and make the transition move forward.

This is not an easy process. Often, it takes time, careful persistence to address the issues. Trust building (yes, even between parents and children!) and the slow process of addressing, and lowering, fears so that changes can proceed naturally. At times, families simply can’t, won’t, or will want to decrease the risks of a negative outcome by engaging an outside entity to guide the process.

However it gets approached, trying to force someone to get past their fears (i.e.: Fear Factor style) is fraught with risks. There is no doubt that it can make things change, if successful, but too often it will heighten fears, create more resistance, and worst of all, create a traumatic event that may harm the relationships necessary to make a transition good for everyone.

**Often the younger generation will over emphasize the dreams not tied to the business as a means to leverage change. This often backfires. The senior sees this as the younger generation trying to “force them out” or manipulate because the dreams and fears tied to the business are minimized instead of being addressed.

Available eBooks:

Engaging Your Team: A framework for managing difficult people.

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

Comment