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How Trust Erodes In The Family Business

By Kyle Danner

It seems odd to talk about trust in a family business. After all, if you can’t trust your family, who can you trust?

Yet, trust erodes without our knowledge and beyond our awareness. That erosion starts with the little things. Here are three ways trust erodes.

3 Ways Trust Erodes In A Family Business

  1. You don’t listen to someone else
  2. You’re not being consistent in your words and/or actions
  3. You’re not being kind

These three things start with making assumptions. We’ve known our family members since the day we, or they, were born. We get used to how everyone interacts with one another to the point it becomes habit. We don’t stop to consider their motives or our motives for that reason. We simply assume.

The erosion continues with shortcuts in communication. We don’t listen clearly to what the other person is saying. We fill in the blanks missing important information. We’re either busy preparing to respond or we’ve decided what they’re really trying to say. We’ll speak for them. We don’t stop to check our assumptions. We just plow forward.

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Frustration builds. In our minds, the other person isn’t listening to us, so we do one of two things.

We ignore them or we lash out, or both depending on the situation. Since they’re not listening to us, we give them the cold shoulder, even when they’re in pain and needing our support. If ignoring them doesn’t work or it doesn’t feel good, we lash out. Maybe it’s the snarky, passive-aggressive comment when a new idea is offered. Or it’s something direct like saying “that’s a stupid idea” or “how can you be so dumb?”

At this point, the pain is too great so we cut them off. That doesn’t mean we leave the family business and move thousands of miles away. Instead, we don’t say, “Good morning” passing them in the hallway at the start of the day or we skip weekly status meetings.

Then we start communicating with them through others, including family members or employees. That leads to others picking sides causing the distrust to erode further through the family and the business.

Everyone pays the price.


3 Steps To Rebuilding Trust In Your Family Business

If you find yourself in this situation, acknowledge your part in the erosion. If you accept responsibility, you accept that you have the power to change it. Once you do, try the following:

1. Ask for help - It’s hard to say “no” when someone asks, “Can you help me?” Be genuine and show interest in what they have to say. Keep your responses open-ended with, “Tell me more about that” or neutral with “I hadn’t considered that option.”

2. Share information - When trust erodes, we tend to circle the wagons and close ourselves off from others. That’s a normal human response. We were hurt so we’re going to protect ourselves. Holding onto information is a way to maintain control making us feel better. Instead, be open and share information.

3. Deal Directly with the Other - It’s tempting to recruit others to take our side when trust is gone. We paint the other as the villain and feel better in our righteousness. But it’s not fair to the third party, whether it’s family or employees. It’s not their issue and they’re hurt by it too. Either they have to choose sides or gingerly navigate between two warring factions. It saps their energy and attention from their work which brings the family and business down.

Rebuilding trust isn’t easy. It demands that we acknowledge our role in its erosion. It requires us to take risks when we’ve been hurt in the past. And it doesn’t feel good in the moment. None of that sounds pleasant, but it’s necessary to repair the relationship to everyone’s benefit.

If you are part of a family business and you feel like trust has eroded, contact me and let’s work together to rebuild the trust between your family and between your business’s employees. I offer a variety of consulting, coaching, development and training services that support all roles in the family business.

You can also go ahead and schedule a free conversation with me so I can get to know you, your business, and the challenges you are facing, and create a plan to address the elephant in the room!