When families gather around the holiday table for the traditional feast, there is traditionally one person who is absent or if he or she is present, there is a conspicuous or palpable discomfort among the rest of the family members. Male or female, rich or poor, married or single, young or old, geek or appalling, this person is often the object of ridicule, pity, envy, fear or embarrassment. In most cases, when he or she is present, there is a tendency that others will try to avoid him or her.
“My parents and siblings look at me as the black sheep of my family,” said Ken when we talked about family issues over lunch at Raffles City in Singapore a few months ago. Ken is in his late 30s, a middle child, is actively helping in the family business but visibly bothered and at the same time confused why he is being branded as the family’s “black sheep.”
I also spoke to his parents, and they complained that Ken cannot seem to get along with his other siblings. “Our son is smart but lacks the emotional maturity and patience. He always quarrels with everybody. We are concerned as some siblings have complained to us that we need to discipline him as he has become a disgrace and liability to the family. We do not know what to do.”
Generally considered the outcast of the family, the black sheep is typically the person who deviates from the family rules. “Ken is really a non-conformist and it makes everyone uncomfortable when he is around,” adds the father.
These are signs that your family has a black sheep:
a. There is a family member that is always agitated and uncooperative for no apparent reason.
b. A sibling or family member that thinks highly of himself but does not show empathy in the workplace and during family occasions.
c. He or she is sometimes a loner, few friends and prefers to be left alone
d. There is one family member that is ignored, subtly not invited to certain family occasions or left out of the loop on family news.
A black sheep is universal
As a parent, you are not alone. Having a black sheep family member is universal and initiating certain actions can be a daunting challenge. But having an aberrant family member is a result of inconsistencies that are far and wide. It is likely that the family member grew up showered with unconditional love, being nurtured and treated as an equal among siblings while expectations as a business manager that centered on the other side like performance, meritocracy and accountability were never considered.
As professor Kimberly Eddelston remarked, “When this logic (of love and equality) transfers to the business, however, it can be dangerous since it encourages the family to compensate for the weaknesses and failings of family members and to forgive indiscretions.”
While it is indeed difficult for a family business leader to initiate change, it will always start with a firm resolve of separating the family and the business. This setting of rules, albeit too late in the game, will trigger a confused family member to become rebellious. Eventually, he or she will become uncooperative and will manifest a behavior that can create schisms in sibling relationships.
What Eddelston pointed out is a common behavior of a black sheep family member and when left unchecked, can produce a damaging impact. It must be highlighted that the problem becomes an “elephant in the room,” so big and heavy that no one wants to confront it or try to move it.
When the family continues to ignore it, we can expect a very large problem that will continue to overshadow whatever successes the family business has achieved. When the issues become emotional and highly charged, they can compromise the business and eventually split the family apart.