When harmony works, when it doesn’t | Inquirer Business

When harmony works, when it doesn’t

“preserving family harmony is most important for us,” Pedro (not his real name), 78, told me during our first meeting.

The patriarch of a family-run retail business up north, Pedro and his wife raised their four children, all boys, in a traditional way:  the parents’ word was law, no one was allowed to talk back, fighting was forbidden.

Family mealtime topics were external matters (acquaintances, politics) rather than sensitive issues that could trigger arguments.


Harmony is a Confucian virtue.


“The pursuit of key values—righteousness, wisdom, fidelity, filial piety, propriety—helps people maintain inner harmony and at the same time enhances harmoniousness in social relations,” says US family business expert Robert Westwood. Instead of relying on formal laws, family businesses often rely on hierarchical relationships.

What the West may view as dictatorial, the East may simply accept as the natural order of things.

“Children are taught to be conforming, dependent and deferential,” says Westwood.

“Such characteristics tend to be viewed rather negatively in the West, where children are taught to be independent, questioning, and individualistic. In Southeast Asia, they are part of a natural and necessary orientation for the maintenance of a complex and intricate social system,” he says.

Harmony has its strengths.

Preserving harmony among numerous tribes, often by brutal means, enabled emperors to unify China. Respect for the emperor (or patriarch) kept the peace. With the patriarch’s word as law, decisions are quickly made.


What happens when the patriarch relinquishes power (retirement, disability, death)?  Without real harmony, confusion results.  If issues are left unresolved, confusion becomes chaos.

Clear the air

When Pedro suffered a heart attack, his doctor ordered him to stop working. Daily affairs were left to his children. While they were proficient enough in their own divisions, things went downhill when major decisions had to be made.

Long-simmering tensions boiled over:  Sibling A was accused of squandering company money because he was the favorite of the patriarch; Sibling B of favoring his children over those of his siblings, Sibling C  of being henpecked by his wife.

There was no recognized leader.

The only solution was to work toward genuine harmony.

The process could not be done overnight: everyone had to feel heard, their concerns addressed.

I started by talking in depth with each sibling (and the spouses, and even children), noting real (or imagined) concerns, and providing therapy to deal with present (and past) hurts.

Roots of the conflict were not just business issues, but also personal ones. Parental favoritism, for instance, is a bone of contention in most family businesses (to be tackled next week).

The path to healing was not easy. “Why talk about uncovering past hurts?” Pedro asked. “I want family harmony.”

“Your family harmony is false,” I told him. “Only by healing hurts could everyone move on.”

How did we work toward true harmony?

Sibling A said it was not easy being the favorite, and had to convince everyone that he never used his role for personal gain. Sibling B, far from favoring his kids, turned out to be extremely strict (even harsh) with them, because he wanted them to meet family expectations. Sibling C deferred to his (more capable) spouse on certain matters, but not when it comes to sensitive financial ones.

When the siblings renewed their trust in one another, the air started to clear. They were able to discuss business issues in a more rational manner. We met together to deal with business problems as professionally as possible: what they required of the younger generation, how to train and assess them, how to treat family vis-à-vis non-family professionals, how to make finances transparent, how the family board will handle decision making, how to manage conflict, and so on.

All these eventually formed their family business constitution.

The entire process took six months, with a bit of yelling and tears along the way.

But the rewards were boundless: relief, renewed trust, closer family bonds, and to Pedro’s satisfaction, genuine family harmony at last.

(The author is on the board of directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (e-mail [email protected].).


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TAGS: Business, families, family harmony, Retail

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