Son Versus Son: What’s a Parent to Do?

It’s “déjà vu all over again, Martha thought as she listened to her younger son, Hugh, complain about how his brother Peter didn’t listen to his ideas or treat him with the respect he felt he deserved at the office.

“He mocks me, Mom, in front of the employees! My work is as good as his, and my ideas are, too. He gives me no authority and criticizes everything I do. Will you please just talk to him about it?”

Listening to his litany of grievances, Martha heard echoes of the squabbles the two boys had as kids over whose turn it was to choose a TV show or who ate the last piece of cake. Invariably, Peter would use his two years’ seniority to overrule his brother, and then Hugh would come to Mom for justice, and Mom would intercede. And just as inevitably, Peter would find a way to get back at him for getting him in trouble with Mom. Now, when Martha refused to step in, Hugh was crushed.

She came to us, hoping we could help her to break this unhappy pattern. Childhood conflicts were one thing, but their troubled relationship was threatening the health of the family business, and a lot more was at stake than that last piece of cake. Mom is in a squeeze. She recognizes that the caliber of Hugh’s work is less than satisfactory, so standing up for Hugh can compromise the company’s quality, yet if she does not support Hugh, she disappoints her son at a time when he’s counting on her.

Our analysis: Hugh’s frustration and pain are significant, and he sees his mother as his only refuge. While there may be legitimate reasons for Peter’s behavior, they are apparently unknown to Hugh. Mom is trying to separate family and business and break the old patterns by directing Hugh to communicate with his brother. But he has counted on Mom to “straighten things out” before and is now disappointed at her unwillingness to do so.

Kudos to Mom for realizing that she can’t continue to play the referee role.

Hugh must understand that no matter how unjust he believes his brother to be, Mom is no longer the court of last resort. He must confront his brother directly or be prepared to tolerate the current situation. Likewise, if Peter has something to say about Hugh, he should say it straight to him. To undermine his brother to other employees is to destroy both his brother’s and his own credibility. Peter must try to respect Hugh’s concerns and be willing to listen with an open mind. In the absence of a more formal performance appraisal process, he can also make it clear to Hugh that certain standards of quality are expected and must be achieved for the sake of the business.

Hugh and Peter should seriously assess the advisability of their current reporting relationship. Whenever possible, siblings ought not “report” to siblings. When older and younger brothers’ behaviors from years past surface in the family business, they can devour and distort the business issues.

Mothers in a family business are typically charged with the role of “CEO,” Chief Emotional Officer. This carries a special burden as well as an opportunity. Mothers are frequently counted on as the ones to achieve a sense of balance and fairness.

But for Mom and the business, administering a quick dose of guidance and direction can often be more valuable than trying to be the consummate referee.

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