Trust But Verify

The most challenging obstacles in many family businesses are dysfunctional relationships between family members.  It is why ranches don’t make it from one generation to another and why the ranching “lifestyle” can be a lifestyle of resentment and misery for some.

I’ve met with ranching families who are so dysfunctional that they won’t even talk to one another. In one case, a family member whose share in the ranch was worth over five million dollars harbored so much ill will against the others that she wouldn’t even come to a meeting I was asked to facilitate to discuss the future of the ranch. I spent several hours one-on-one listening to her pain. In the end I insisted that the others address the question: How do you run a business when shareholders feel so much resentment toward each other that they won’t come to board meetings and even threaten to sue one another?  After a surprisingly productive meeting I summarized the conclusions I intended to include in my report.  Then I told them that since the business was my client and the business is owned by all of them, including the family member  who wouldn’t participate, that I planned to send my report to all of the shareholders.  I asked, How do you feel about that?  The answer could have come from an elementary school playground, She wasn’t here to give us her input, so I don’t want to share ours!  It’d be comical if it weren’t so sad.
The resentment these family members, now in their 60’s, carry with them infects everything they do. It began growing when they were kids and for 50 years no one has been willing or able to apologize or forgive. Unfortunately they have lots of company.  Many of us find some strange kind of validation in blaming each other.  But holding on to that resentment is like taking poison and hoping someone else will die.  The resentment kills us emotionally and spiritually and the stress kills us physically.  If we could only let go.  If only.
In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Course we use the metaphor of the Emotional Bank Account.  We make deposits by keeping commitments and by helping one another.  We make withdrawls when we do hurtful things and break promises.  Some relationships are so severely over-drawn they will never have a positive balance unless someone forgives the debt.  But sometimes we act as though we’d rather carry the debt, exposing our scars for all to see how we’ve been hurt, than let the over-drawn party even try to repay the debt.
The reasons we won’t forgive and can’t forget are many and complex, but at the foundation of all of them is the erosion of trust.  We need to work on our overdrawn relationships to rebuild trust, but we also need to separate  family relationship issues from the issues critical to running a successful business.  As suggested in the best-selling book on negotiation, Getting To Yes, we need to separate the people issues from the business issues.
But how do you work through business issues when there is no trust?   In Getting to Yes, the authors explain that trust is not, or at least doesn’t have to be, an issue.   A great example of this principle was summed up by Ronald Regan, referring to a  nuclear arms treaty being negotiated with the  Soviet Union. He said, Trust, but verify.  By agreeing on objective standards by which performance will be measured, trust is not the issue, performance is.


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