Research suggests that blended families are on the rise, adding an additional layer of family dynamics to the existing complexities that business families are dealing with. During the inauguration of the new United States president in Washington DC, the very blended nature of the First Family was hard to miss. But is it really a new phenomenon and how does it influence family conflict?
Blended families have always been with us and have played a role in some of the great dynasties of the past; Julius Caesar adopted his great-nephew Octavian—the later emperor Augustus—as his son and heir in his will to ensure his family legacy. The practice of adult adoption by wealthy business owners in Japan to continue the family name is a time honoured custom. In the early 17th century the Samurai class started adopting sons as a means to maintaining the family’s societal power.
In Switzerland, a well-known example is the adoption of Richard Sprüngli, from the famous confectionary business family, by his uncle Hermann, as the latter did not have children. The adoption also brought the family some welcome inheritance tax advantages.
Blended families are certainly more complex, but they also potentially have extra dimensions to intensify conflicts. Many family conflicts are rooted in entrenched dynamics (some going back to competition in the crib) and adding additional layers—biological vs adoptive or step-children and their interaction with each other, their parents (biological or otherwise) and broader family factions (biological or otherwise; blended or not etc)—can become a nightmare. The history, politics and dynamics of a blended family also bring an additional emotional load and intensity to conflicts. Put another way, how or why a blended family came about could touch death, divorce, disloyalty or a host of other taboos.
Even more than in traditional families, a combination of planning, education, communication and transparency are essential when dealing with succession discussions in blended business families. Issues of trust, fairness and recognition to name a few, are so much more fraught in complex family constellations and it is impossible to establish a sound governance framework, while family secrets and unknowns are hiding in the shadows.
Are there also success stories? Yes, of course there are. And the eyes of the world in the next four years will be on the successes and failures of the new First Family of the US.