Hubler For Business Families

The Technological Divide: Leap or Fall?

Is technology triggering distrust between generations?

Key Takeaways:
  • A business difference can erode into a trust issue between family members in a business.
  • Keep business and family issues separate so that a simple difference of opinion does not fester into a personal fight.
  • What one side may see as a commonsense attitude another may see as a condescending or marginalizing attitude.
  • Understand that working in a family business requires each generation to regularly make contributions for the common good.

As family business entrepreneurs prepare to hand their life's work off to their adult children, a huge shift in communication tradition has produced a tidal wave of conflict and distrust among generations. It can tear apart a business family. It can also put a family business at risk. How can it be overcome?

For the first time in history, four distinct generations of adults are now socializing, communicating and actively participating in the workplace. Countless theories, articles and study courses have been devoted to understanding these dynamics. Marketers and demographers have defined them. Sociologists and psychologists have proposed each generation's psychographic (behavioral) characteristics. You've likely heard some of them and probably identify with one of these groups, which are described below.

Here is my summary as a way to compare these generational "differences."

The oldest of the next (fifth) generation are already in their teens and will soon be entering the workforce. They haven't been named yet, but I imagine them as Gen Wii or Gen 9-11, based on the world events that influenced them. We'll see.

I spent extra time identifying the generations because in family businesses, many mistakenly believe that generational differences are exceptionally disruptive. It's common in my practice to hear, "My [father/mother/son/daughter/grandchild] isn't doing it right."

Differences become irritants that can lead to battles that engulf the family and ruin their social as well as business life. Family gatherings seethe with silent business disagreements. Young and old stifle their emotions, bite their tongues and try to get along. Families attempt to separate their personal times from their business interactions to the detriment of both. That’s because it's axiomatic in any business family: The business IS the family, and the family IS the business. They are inseparable, yet the crossover must be controlled.

But you can't get away from your business associate when your associate is your mother! Thus, much of my practice provokes discussion, understanding and healing within families torn apart by disagreement and unresolved conflict.

From my perspective as a consultant, I suggest that the more you understand those who are younger than you and older than you, the more rewarding your associations will be. Granted, that's easier said than done. Each of us brings a generational perspective to life and work. That generational perspective is natural to us in our generation. It represents not only how we see the world, but also how we think others should see the world. It is a kind of "truth."

In spite of how smart I think I am, it has taken me a long time to adjust to all the technology inventions. In order to make the leap into the 21st century, I've had to work with several Gen X technology consultants. I truly appreciate their patience, as it eventually gave me the confidence to work with and understand social media.

While I am still not quite there, I am beginning to see the results of the new systems, and it is easier for me to encourage my father-generation clients (those from the traditional and boomer generations) to work with their younger-generation sons and daughters to integrate these new technologies into their lives.

Right now, early baby boomers are beginning to enter their middle 60s, and as late traditionalists who started a business, they are well aware of the prospect of retirement. Within business families, there seems to be increasing friction between those planning to retire and their children who expect to take the lead.

Baby boomers formed ideas that cause them to be prone to workaholism and needing more balance between work and family. They tend to base authority on tenure or seniority. And, central to this article, they are often uncomfortable with technology and slow to adjust to it.

On the other hand, boomers' Gen Y/millennial children formed perceptions that cause them essentially to "work to live," and they are much more aware of work-life balance than their parents tend to be. They think workaholics "waste life." Gen Y/millenials grew up with computers, cell phones, iPads and notebooks and expect tech companies to innovate even more than they already do.

Based on my training as a psychologist and my experience with thousands of business-family clients, I see that technology has caused a major gap between baby boomers and their Gen Y children. The technological dynamic of instant and ubiquitous access to the Internet has caused what I would call a great technological divide. More than an issue of access, understanding, training or even accommodation, the generations see this technological gap as a personality issue rather than as an informational issue. The generations are blaming each other, losing trust in each other and even undercutting each other over feelings about the state and use of technology in the world.

The baby boomer entrepreneur looks at his or her Gen Y adult child and thinks, "Technology has ruined our capacity to reason and communicate." Meanwhile, the Gen Y daughter or son looks at the baby boomer family business leader and thinks, "He is totally out of touch with how the world works today." Each generation feels disrespected, underutilized, in touch but unrecognized, and misunderstood. Each questions the other's capability as a personal competency rather than as a technological preference.

In my next installment, we'll look at ways to resolve this crisis.

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