When family members work together in a business setting, they carry the norms and assumptions from home into the workplace. However, an unhealthy family myth can affect your business and increase the chance of conflict between family members and coworkers, making it harder to get work done.

What is a Family Myth?

A family myth is a set of fictitious beliefs that are adopted by a family as a whole. They can apply to group behaviors or individual expectations. They can also control each person’s role within the family, possibly based on the family’s position in society or the individual’s gender, birth order, or personal history.

Family myths are made up of assumptions about what it means to be part of that family. They are often based on some painful or hard-to-accept truth about the family or its members. Family myths are assumed to be true. Members will admit to holding the belief, but most cannot explain why. When a family myth becomes dysfunctional, it can negatively affect the family, and the family business.

Common Types of Family Myths

Individual family myths are as diverse as the families that hold them. They can be influenced by a family’s religion, cultural background, society, and personal history. However, they generally fall into one of three types:

Harmony Myths

These myths cover over the problems within a family, promoting balance, unity, and a connection between their members. They create a united front against outside threats, investigation, or judgment. However, they can make it difficult for family members to address disagreements among themselves, and can result in unresolved conflict, grudges, and resentment.

The Scapegoat or the Black Sheep

Family myths sometimes apologize or try to make up for the shortcomings of a particular family member, whether real, exaggerated, or imagined. These myths blame the family’s misfortune or problems on one or more members. By projecting problems on the scapegoat, other family members avoid responsibility for their part of the dysfunction.

Mother (or Father) Knows Best

Another common family myth creates a “savior” among the family who can intervene to end arguments, provide for the family’s needs, and fix family problems. The burden placed on these savior figures can be enormous, especially within a family business setting. When a problem arises that this person can’t fix it can create hostility, disappointment, and shame.

Challenging the Family Myth Affecting Your Business

Family myths often define the roles each member plays within the family. They also assume everyone in the family is pulling toward the same end. These assumptions can color the way family members behave at work and can cause problems for a family business. For example:

  • Assigning hospitality work to a daughter and manual labor to a son based on assumed gender roles when their personalities and core strengths dictate the opposite roles.
  • Assuming the oldest child will inherit leadership in the family business when the parents retire when in fact, he is not interested in owning a business.
  • Limiting assignments given to the “black sheep” because of conceptions formed long ago that she is lazy and unwilling to work when in fact a project is well suited to her skills and interests.

In all these cases, the family business would benefit from actions that go against the family myth. However, any attempt to change the beliefs that bring a family together will almost certainly meet strong resistance. In many cases, identifying and modifying the assumptions behind a family myth will take dedication, buy in from the family (including those not on the payroll), and the help of an objective third party outside the family dynamic.

Shining Light on the Fictions Behind Family Myths

Objectivity and data can be an important tool in changing a family’s core false beliefs. A business consultant familiar with family myths and their effect on family businesses can help company shareholders can begin the difficult process of challenging their assumptions. Through individual interviews and strengths assessments, a consultant can help your family make business decisions based on family members’ actual abilities and preferences, rather than assumptions carried on because of a shared family myth.

David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping family business owners with business succession planning and executive coaching. David helps family-owned businesses resolve conflict and plan for their future. Contact us to meet with David to start breaking down the harmful family myths affecting your business today.