Betrayal: The Emotional Malady of Family Businesses - Part Two

Forgiving begins to soothe betrayal

By Tom Hubler

Key Takeaways:

  • Acceptance, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude are powerful emotional centers that can help family businesses deal with betrayals.
  • Family-owned businesses often lack structure because, too often, family members confuse the need for formality with mistrust.
  • Structure and formality set ground rules as in a baseball game. They help family businesses identify exactly what’s fair and what’s foul.

As we discussed in Part 1 of this article, betrayal is a powerful emotion best soothed by a combination of other emotions that can help a family overcome the mistrust, blame and incredible pain that can tear apart business families. These emotional centers are acceptance, compassion, forgiveness and gratitude.

  • Acceptance starts when we understand that there are situations in our lives that we don’t control. Accepting that in some instances we are powerless is a major healing factor in relationships. We recognize that we can control only our own response to what happens. As discussed in Part 1, the Danz family got it; Jack fired his daughter and has yet to accept it.
  • Compassion helps us understand that a person is more than the sum of his/her faults. Each of us has positive and negative aspects in our personalities. “Betrayers” have both qualities too. By focusing on both sides, we can begin to forgive. This also helps relieve our own suffering and pain.
  • Forgiveness can seed a new beginning in our relationship with a betrayer. Forgiveness allows us to understand that “to be wrong is nothing, unless you remember it,” as was so wisely stated by Confucius. Forgiveness helps wipe the slate for you and others. Because family members love each other, forgiveness is essential so that relationships can be renewed after a betrayal.
  • Gratitude is the recognition that our lives are blessed and that we need to express appreciation for the abundance we receive. There is always a choice: focus on the negative, the thorns in our lives, or focus on the blessings and good things that happen to us. As Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) said, “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.” This is the approach each participant in the Family Forgiveness Ritual© takes by choosing to focus on his or her blessings.

Putting these four emotions into action helps both the betrayed and the betrayer begin the healing process and refresh their relationship. By making this choice and taking responsibility for our responses, we create an inner peace and do not allow hurts and betrayals in our lives to overcome us.

Of course, the preferred approach is to prevent or reduce the capacity for betrayal in the first place. That is made more possible by structuring the family business in such a way as to avoid it.

Prevention is always better than intervention
Family-owned businesses often lack structure because, too often, family members confuse formality with mistrust. “We don’t need rules,” they say, “because we love each other.” Yet that is precisely why a business family needs clear agreements.

Structure and formality set ground rules as in a baseball game. They help family businesses identify exactly what’s fair and what’s foul. Too much informality gets people in trouble. Meredith, the daughter who was fired, should not have had access to the company’s financial information so early in her career. But because she was family, she saw information that would not have been available to non-family employees working their way up in the business. Restricting access would have prevented the problem from occurring.

The Danz family put individual disagreements ahead of business effectiveness. An impartial board of directors with outside advisors would help prevent these dysfunctions. A more formal contract describing each family member’s responsibilities and duties would set parameters and define roles. Additional education, skill development and leadership mentoring would help nurture the capabilities of individual family members. Unless this is done consciously and formally, it is left to chance and the business and the family suffer.

Betrayal is most devastating when it occurs with someone you love. It is doubly disheartening when the betrayer is both a family member and a co-worker.


There is no complete antidote for betrayal. As I tell my clients, “It is easier to prevent a problem than to try to fix one,” and business families can inoculate themselves with structure, clearly defined roles, checks and balances, and love that chooses to forgive the impact of betrayal.

About the Author

Tom Hubler (tomh@thehublergroup.com) is president of Hubler for Business Families (hublerfamilybusiness.com) and an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas. He can be contacted at (612) 375-0640.