by David Bork

To answer this question, if there is an answer, one can begin with a review of the animal kingdom and survival of the species. Charles Darwin wrote about the innate urge to survive as a powerful motivation. Stories abound in the animal kingdom of the strong dominating the weak so that they, the strong, not the weak, will have the opportunity to reproduce.

Life in the wild can be so brutal, that sometimes animals are forced to do terrible things to ensure survival. Cannibalism and infanticide are well known in many species, but perhaps the most disturbing cases are those of baby animals killing their siblings, sometimes moments after they are born! Search the Internet for “fratricide in animals” and you will find a list of top ten fratricidal baby animals. It includes birds, reptiles and animals. The adaptation of the spotted hyena is of special interest.

“Most large predatory mammals, such as big cats, are born with eyes closed and toothless; in other words, completely harmless. However, that’s not the case with African spotted hyenas. They are born with eyes open, alert and armed with sharp teeth, and start fighting each other at a surprisingly early age to establish their dominance; the larger cubs bite their weaker siblings brutally, and although adult hyenas may try to separate them, as soon as the babies are left alone in the communal burrows, they continue with their fighting; battles between hyena cubs can last for weeks.

Baby hyenas have even been known to dig smaller tunnels inside the burrow, and fight inside these tunnels, where their mother couldn’t possibly reach them. In some cases, the weaker cubs die because of their injuries, but usually their fate is even worse; after being bullied so ruthlessly by the stronger cubs, they become so shy that they won’t even dare leave the burrow when their mother comes home to feed them. Eventually, they die of starvation inside the burrow.

Besides being a strategy for the stronger cubs (the future leaders of the hyena clan) to eliminate potential competitors, fratricide is also a natural way to regulate the population. Indeed, hyenas are the most abundant large predators in Africa, and other than lions, which kill some of them occasionally, they have no natural enemies at all.”

From conception, the hyena is driven to survive. It is only after their early stages that they develop collaborative skills in the hunt for food. I have been on safari in Africa and seen hyenas collaborate in making a kill of an impala, dismembering and devouring the antelope in a matter of minutes, all the while working together in the process.

According to the Bible and the Qur'an, fratricide was the first type of murder committed in human history. Cain was enraged because Abel received the favors that he wanted. Some might even call this the first sibling rivalry. I will leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether family business is un-natural but what I think one can conclude is that siblings must learn to collaborate if they are going to be successful in business.

In many cultures, the manner of raising children pits them against each other. Birth order, alone, sets up a competitive dynamic. From a very early age, either through sports or other avenues, competition is encouraged within the family. In many families the emphasis on “who is bigger, stronger, better” creates deep resentments between the individuals. It is not unusual for these resentments to be “alive and well,” very present when young adults join the family business. Much of the emphasis parents place on doing well is essential to sound ego development. One of the tasks of parents is to help each of their children develop a strong sense of self, a quality that is so critical to success in life. Thus, one of the essential developmental elements also carries the potential for siblings polarizing over matters in the business.

How can family business owners handle these seemingly competitive forces? In successful family businesses there is a high level of collaborative problem solving. Fundamentally, it's all about control. Choosing a collaborative decision making style is about making a choice of what level of control you want, or need, in the decision making process. In “The Little Red Book of Family Business,” under “Decision Making,” is the following:

“It is okay for everyone to have an opinion. It is NOT okay for everyone to think that their opinion should always prevail. The person who has the responsibility and will ultimately be held accountable should have the final say.

Criteria-based decision-making starts with defining the desired outcome, then listing the possible alternative actions, which may include doing nothing. You might begin by writing, “The desired outcome will __________.” The next step is to list alternative actions to achieve this outcome and then make reasonable predictions for each of them. Finally, you select the alternative that will move you closest to the desired outcome in your written statement. This method reduces the personal ownership of the idea and lets the criteria make the choice.”

Lowering the level of “personal ownership” of the idea and the decision has the effect of reducing the likelihood of parties polarizing. It becomes a matter of what is the right decision rather than who is making the decision.

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