How would you rate communication within your family business?

Rate your communication within your family business

When assisting family businesses to resolve their issues, we often interview family members and pose the question: How would you rate the level and quality of communication amongst family members? Recent interviews with two brothers in one family business elicited these responses: 

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Family communicating with a tin can and string

Recent interviews with two brothers in one family business elicited these responses: 

“Things are only communicated on a need-to-know basis or unless it is a personal grievance which then manifests in an argument or disagreement.”

“It has been difficult. I would say 6 (rating from 1 to 10) but everyone is walking on eggshells. If we aren’t talking about work it is more like an 8.”

Miscommunication is a common issue in family businesses. Sure, it can be an issue in any business, however where family businesses differ is the layer of emotion, familiarity and family dynamics that come with conversations and decision making.

When asked about communication, family members are proud to report that “yes, we talk all the time”. But when you scratch below the surface, a different picture emerges. Yes they talk, but have difficulty communicating effectively about issues that concern them and do not have the means of separating family, business and ownership issues… they are muddled together.

So what is the answer? In the interests of maintaining harmony, some families fall into the trap of using the ‘silent treatment’. For example, the first generation family owner won’t discuss leadership of the business in the next generation of future ownership. The issue isn’t resolved; it just simmers below the surface, creates tension and builds to a head over time.

“I will inherit this business but our future direction is unclear…it’s all in dad’s head.” 

(Quote from second generation family member)

“What am I working towards? I have my own aspirations” 

(Quote from second generation family member)

On the issue of silence, many family members wrongly conclude that silence equals agreement. When no one in the family voices disagreement to an idea or plan, some family members assume everyone else is on side. In this scenario different family dynamics are at play: the first born family member assuming they are the decision maker for the family; the passive family members who want everyone to be happy; the family member seeing it as a sign of disrespect to question the family business founder who has provided the family with so much; or the family business leader sensitive to other family members asking questions as seeing it as a sign of mistrust.

KPMG’s role is often focused on assisting the family to make a progressive shift from ‘talking all the time’ to effective communication. Here is some food for thought:

  • Effective communication is the sending and receiving of messages. However, often we focus more on the sending part: 'we need to communicate more' is misconstrued as meaning 'we need to give more information'. But to foster effective inter-personal communication, attentive listening is paramount.
  • Listening is greatly facilitated when the message is transmitted in a proper manner. The message is often lost due to the familiarity of family member relationships i.e. “oh they aren’t arguing, they always deal with each other like that”. 
  • Mean what you say – be open and transparent with respect to your intentions, motivations, views and reasons for taking a certain position on an issue.
  • Robust debate between family members with differing views can be a good thing provided it is constructive and respectful
  • Engaging family members in some key decisions not only improves the quality of the decision, but also enhances the satisfaction and motivation of all concerned – even when the decision taken is not necessarily favourable to them.

Tension and disagreement amongst family members on family related business issues and ownership is ‘normal’, if not inevitable, regardless of how harmonious the family is. The key is how the family effectively communicates to address the issue so it doesn’t become deep-seated and cast a cloud over family relationships and decision making in the family business.

Learning to better communicate is a fundamental element for family business success.

On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the level and quality of communication amongst family members? 

Are the discussions you are having in your family business real discussions, or are they only touching the edges of what really needs to be discussed?


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