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Understanding Family Business Problems through Science, Part 2

By Scott E. Friedman, Andrea H. Vossler, and Eliza P. Friedman


Understanding Family Business Problems through Science, Part 1, applied the “fight or flight response” theory to help readers understand the challenges that threaten family businesses. Part 2 in our two-part series examines how fear-based thinking can negatively impact family businesses—and what can be done to fix it.


Our “fight or flight” response trains our brains to spot the negative, to focus on—and often fear—mistakes, failures and criticism. Such fears can manifest themselves in counter-productive, fear-based behaviors, including greed,[1]anger,[2] turf-ism,[3] lying,[4] and cheating.[5] Inside a family business, stakeholders might experience other insidious and destructive “modern day forms of fears,” such as a fear of being under appreciated (and, perhaps, under-compensated), a fear that someone else is unduly appreciated (and, so, perhaps, overcompensated), a junior family member’s fear of not garnering sufficient control, or a parent’s fear of losing control.


Fortunately, scientists continue to learn more about our brain’s capacity to manage (when appropriate)[6] counterproductive fear based emotions.[7] We have the ability to choose what to focus on and to choose how to explain our world, even by re-programing our brains to change how we filter, interpret and react to the world. We can learn to override “fear” and, in doing so, appreciate not just problems, but possibilities too—to see not only our challenges but our blessings. [8] As individuals, we can learn to be happy and, as organizations, we can learn how to flourish.


The team at D21 Partners is equipped to help Buffalo-area family businesses solve problems they are facing. Let's talk if you need help solving problems surrounding culture, succession planning, and more. To prompt this conversation and see if our team is a good fit for you, take our Family Business Scorecard here.

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[1]. See, e.g., Richard Taflinger, Taking Advantage: The Biological Basis of Human Behavior, Wash. State Univ., http://public.wsu.edu/~taflinge/biology.html (last visited Apr. 3, 2017) (“Biologically, for any organism that is successful greed is good . . . Greed is one organism getting a larger piece of the pie, more of the necessary resources, than other organisms . . . Again, as for self-preservation and sex, greed is an instinctive reaction. When presented with resources, the instinct is to grab them, use them, take advantage of them. This isn’t a conscious decision. An animal, when starving, wants more food; when thirsty, more water. If it means taking it from another animal, that’s what it does if it can.”).


[2]. Psychologist Deborah Khoshaba explains the dynamic between fear and anger:

There is a strong relationship between anger and fear. Anger is the fight part of the age-old fight-or-flight response to threat. Most animals respond to threat by either fighting or fleeing. But, we don’t always have the option to fight what threatens us. Instead, we have anger. Words are the civilized way that we get to fight threat. And, some words, as you know, are meant to sting as deeply as a stab wound. Anger is one of the ways that we help our body to prepare for potential danger. Anger stimulates adrenaline to rouse the brain and body to fight or flee a threatening situation. Of course, in more primitive days, the things that angered us centered solely on threats to our survival (a basic need for food, shelter, water, or land). Today, we are civilized; we’ve formed identities of preferences and values of living that make us complex and psychologically defensive. Assaults to your principles, beliefs, and needs and wishes are the basis for your anger, now. And, you will protect your identity as strongly as if you were defending your right to food, shelter, water or land.

Deborah Khoshaba, Masks of Anger: The Fears That Your Anger May Be Hiding, Psychol. in Everyday Life (May 29, 2012), http://www.psychologyineverydaylife.net/2012/05/29/masks-of-anger-the-fears-that-your-anger-may-be-hiding.


[3]. See, e.g., Donna Flagg, Turf Wars at Work, Psychol. Today (June 6, 2010), https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/office-diaries/201006/turf-wars-work(“Turfism. It’s one of those annoying things that end up creating big problems in the workplace. Conceptually, people know that it’s bad and damaging, yet for whatever reason, there are those who can’t seem to help themselves. They feel the need to guard their territory and protect (sometimes with a vengeance) what they perceive to be theirs . . . [I]nvisible walls go up which ultimately hinder communication and infect the culture with a lack of cooperation among people and departments.”).


[4]. Lying can be thought of as the result of one’s fear that “telling the truth” will create a problem.  See, e.g., Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, How and Why We Lie at Work, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Jan. 2, 2015), https://hbr.org/2015/01/how-and-why-we-lie-at-work (“Although every society condemns lying, it is still a common feature of everyday life. Research suggests that Americans average almost two lies per day, though there is huge variability between people . . . [M]ost people lie when they are under pressure (e.g., anxious, afraid, or concerned) . . .”).


[5]. Cheating can be thought of as the resulting fear that one will miss an important opportunity, or be disadvantaged, unless they ignore the applicable rules of conduct. See, e.g., Colm Healy & Karen Niven, When Tough Performance Goals Lead to Cheating, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Sept. 8, 2016), https://hbr.org/2016/09/when-tough-performance-goals-lead-to-cheating (“[E]ven people with low moral justification were more likely to engage in some types of unethical behavior when faced with a specific, challenging performance goal.”).


[6]. We should note that not all fear based emotions and reactions are inappropriate or counterproductive. Common examples include forensic accountants who need to have a degree of skepticism, or flight controllers who need to be concerned about air traffic, when doing their jobs. The problem is that we are at risk of losing control of when to respond appropriately because of our biological instincts.


[7]. Research shows that, simply by engaging regions of our frontal lobes, we can promote “higher order thinking” that can help us live good lives while helping us keep our worst impulses in check. See, e.g., John B. Arden, Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life 73 (2010), http://brainmaster.com/software/pubs/brain/Rewire%20Your%20Brain.pdf.


[8]. Dan Baker, describing this opportunity, writes:

Luckily, we have been blessed with an almost magical source of compensation: the human neocortex. The neocortex is the primary area of intellect in the brain, located in the cerebrum. It is creative, intuitive, intellectual, and spiritual. It is the physical site of happiness.

With our wonderfully redemptive neocortical abilities, we can override the limitations of evolution and free ourselves from the fears that thwart happiness.

Fears will keep coming up—always, always. But we can rise above them. This is our evolutionary gift—our way out of darkness of the past, into light.

Baker, supra note 109, at 7.

Scott E. Friedman, Andrea H. HusVar, and Eliza P. Friedman, Advising Family Businesses in the 21st Century: An Introduction to “Stage 4 Planning” Strategies, 65 Buff. L. Rev.,  May, 2017