It’s hardly surprising, considering the uncertainty that has surrounded us for over a year now, that anxiety has been a pretty pervasive feature for many in 2020. I began thinking about this a little more after reading Judi’s thoughts about entitlement in family systems last month.
An undercurrent to her discussion of entitlement, and how it shows up in families, was the general fear or concern that we often encounter in parents about how they’re doing with their kids. Are they instilling them with good values, with leadership skills, with capacities that will support them in their lives and careers? Will their kids see the value of what the senior generation has created? Will they be strong, respected, innovative thinkers? Anxieties like these, which are just one kind of worry that manifest in enterprising families, are all too common. In my consulting with families across the spectrum of operating businesses and wealth brackets, talking through anxieties or coming up with mitigation strategies has always taken an integral role in our engagements.
But with broadscale uncertainties of COVID-19, the nature of these anxieties have begun to take on a deeper level of seriousness for many. It all feels just that much more acute when you combine the usual worries with our collective fears about the future of public health and the precariousness of economies across the globe. In fact, it can feel like a total and complete catastrophe. We have an example right in front of all of us right now about how things can - and will - go very, very sideways.
Because of this, the anxieties that have risen in many throughout this last year are even more likely than the usual ones to catch us short, and cause us to falter off course. And these fears span all areas of enterprising families, from decision-making processes in operating businesses, to communication strategies amongst family stakeholders, or succession and continuity planning, family relationships, and everything in between.
When the Anxiety Manages You
As much as I am all about giving ourselves a bit of break during this difficult time, I am also acutely aware that kicking that can down the road will only make things worse. Letting anxiety take over, and stop you, your family, your business, or your transition in its tracks will only add fuel to a fire we are all watching blaze. So, in many ways, we have to look our anxieties in their face, and then figure out how to carry on.
This process of figuring out isn’t an abstract one. When I work with families, we take stock of what the biggest worries are, and what the underlying fears are that create those worries. Then, we build tangible, concrete strategies to mitigate the risk of those fears coming to fruition, and practical responses for what the family, the business, the trust, the stakeholders, the decision-makers, etc., will do if one of the feared outcomes becomes reality. Planning a course for the worst-case scenario does not mean that the worst-case scenario will occur, but it sure can make it a little less terrifying to face.
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Of course, there are those families and businesses out there that, despite wildly changing economies and worries about public health outcomes, carry on without giving in to their state of anxiety. What I often observe in them is a state of mind that accepts that things may not - often will not - follow the precise course they anticipate. They often have policies and practices in place that allow them to pivot when conditions change, and so they are less plagued by concerns about the unknown. Addressing fears, getting to the bottom of what they are about, and then putting those policies, procedures, structures or practices into place really can make an absolute world of difference. I have seen it, time and again.
To be sure, we must come to the table with a large helping of compassion for the exhausting way that COVID-19 has affected all of our lives and livelihoods over the last year. But shying away from those fears will only make them much, much bigger. Instead, acknowledging those concerns and planning our responses can break anxiety cycles in lasting and even exciting ways.
Kathy Bright has worked with family enterprises for nearly twenty years. Her range includes hands-on experience with strategy and governance and she has acted as the President and an Officer of the Board for Family Enterprise Canada and Director of the Board of the Business Families Centre at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. Kathy’s interests include leadership, succession and continuity planning, strategy, risk management, governance structures, fiduciary responsibility, and the development and maintenance of positive relationships in family enterprises.