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A Lesson In Mixed Signals From Mom And Dad

By Kyle Danner

When I worked in the family business, Mom and Dad told me two things:

  1. Do what makes you happy.
  2. Stay in the business because the money’s good.

Say what?!?!?

It’s a great example of parents sending mixed signals.

Now, before you think this is a blame Mom and Dad session, it’s not. I grew up in a loving, nurturing home where I enjoyed the support of my parents. That’s the benefit of being the youngest and most perfect child (in my humble opinion).

They wanted me to be happy, but they didn’t want me to struggle like they did. That’s normal for parents: to want what’s best for their kids and for them not to experience some of the hardships they went through.

But sometimes, that message gets mixed up.

Mixed signals, like my example, confuse the listener. In this case, should I stay in the business for the money or should I leave a good salary and stable position to pursue my passion?

Not only do mixed signals create confusion for the listener, they undermine the credibility of the sender. Do they even realize what they’re saying?

And mixed signals are everywhere in the family business:

  • Over dinner, a father complains to the mother about business matters then turns to the kids and tells them “someday you’ll be in charge, and you can deal with these headaches." Uh, no thanks, dad.
  • A CEO mother tells her daughter to take more leadership in the company then complains about her methods despite achieving the stated goals. Make up your mind mom, on what’s important.
  • One brother tells the other brother to take time off then calls him during vacation with business questions. Do I get time off or not?

The kicker here is the sender is not even aware of the mixed signals. It’s unintentional which is confounding for the listener.

So what do we do?

The first step is being aware of what’s happening if you’re the receiver.

Next, take a moment before you respond and ask yourself:

  • What did he say?
  • What did I hear?

Then ask for clarification from the sender. Assume the sender is unaware. Be sincere and genuinely curious.

It can be done in a way where you want to meet the other’s expectations, but need their help in clarifying. For example, say “Help me understand what you mean when you say….”

Remember, all of us send mixed signals.

This isn’t a chance to blame or “catch him” in this misstep. Sure it’ll feel good to one up the person, but that weakens the relationship.

Instead, use this as an opportunity to explore with the other person what he or she is trying to say. Use it as a way to build your relationship.

And we can all check ourselves as the sender of a mixed message. Think before you speak and make sure you are saying what you really mean.

It took time, and some growing up, to realize what Mom and Dad meant when they said, “Do what makes you happy. Stay in the business because the money’s good.” What Mom and Dad said was out of love and concern.

It’s possible the mixed signals you’re receiving are coming from the same place. 

Are You Ready To Lead The Family Business?

As a Next Generation Leader, you have a lot on your plate. You want to set the business up for success — and earn the respect of your family in the process. But there's a lot of uncertainty involved in taking over the business. You may find yourself feeling insecure and wondering if you really have what it takes.

As someone who has been a kid in the family business, I knows what it’s like to have to prove yourself to your parent and to yourself. That's why I created my ebook, Is There An Elephant In You Family Business?, to provide Next Generation Leaders with resources to support themselves, the family, and the business.

You can download a free chapter of the ebook specifically geared toward Next Gen leaders by clicking the button below.