Alcoholism’s “Stinking Thinking” - Part Two: “Loving Concern”

Chemical abuse can derail a family business, not to mention family intimacy, communication and problem resolution. But it can be overcome.

By Tom Hubler

Key Takeaways:

  • Many family businesses do not have formalized performance appraisals, compensation systems or training programs for the next generation entering the business.
  • Chemical abuse can derail a family business, not to mention family intimacy, communication and problem resolution. But it can be overcome.
  • “Stinking thinking” makes chemical abusers abrasive and irrational. While confrontation can be unpleasant, walking on eggshells around them will only compound the problem in the long run. Get them the help they need ASAP.

As we discussed in Part One, if you suspect that someone in your family is abusing a substance, the first step is to encourage that person to have a professional evaluation so the personal, family and business healing process can begin. Here we’ll explore how a courageous family dealt with chemical abuse and got the family and the business back on track.

Like the Riley family profiled in Part One, the Olson family business also was affected by the abuse of alcohol—and drugs.

Here is some history: Paul Olson started the family business in his basement with his wife, Sally, as the bookkeeper and right-hand person. When their oldest daughter, Patti, graduated from college, she joined the business. Eventually Patti married and her husband, Jack, an attorney, was invited to join the business. Paul and Sally’s son, Erik, also joined the business after receiving his graduate degree in a field unrelated to the family business. Lars, the youngest son, struggled to find himself. He had not completed college and worked on the periphery, running errands for the business.

Jack received a generous salary from the business but was not following through on his responsibilities in the sales department. Jack had declined to hear or respond to any feedback. Then, pornography was discovered on Jack’s laptop and, at the urging of parents, Jack and Patti went to a marriage counselor.

I was asked to work with the family because of the son-in-law’s (attorney Jack’s) performance. As I was conducting the Olson family business planning meeting, we were able to identify and discuss the key issues facing the business. In my experience, the issues were typical and resolvable, and they included the lack of formalized performance appraisals, compensation systems and career/training programs for the next generation entering the business.

Informally during that session, the family also expressed a “loving concern” about the use of alcohol and marijuana by the adult children.

We went to a restaurant for the lunch break. After the waitress took our food and beverage orders, Patti ordered a glass of wine. I told Patti that it was not a good idea to have any alcohol while we were having the family planning meeting and discussing such sensitive issues. When I suggested she have a soft drink instead, she blew up at me, left the table in a fury and refused to rejoin the family lunch. Later, Patti returned to join us after some coaching from her parents.

We started the afternoon session by reviewing the issues and recommendations from earlier in the day. It also came up that in addition to Patti’s alcohol misuse, her brothers, Erik and Lars, were smoking marijuana every day. At that point Patti jumped up, left the room and did not return.

Frustrated, the parents, Paul and Sally, halted the session and postponed going forward with the family meeting. Paul, Sally and I then decided that the next step was to hold a “family seminar” on alcohol and drug abuse. It would be conducted by a trained alcohol and drug abuse counselor, with the entire family attending.

Following the chemical abuse seminar, Erik made a personal commitment to stop his drug use. Patti and her husband, Jack, refused to acknowledge that there was a problem. Soon afterward, Patti cut off contact with her parents and would not give them access to the grandchildren. Jack resigned from the business, saying he and Patti were putting their home up for sale and moving to another state.

As one would imagine, Paul and Sally were devastated by this. Yet, courageously, they began to participate in Al-Anon—a 12-step program to learn more about addiction. Also on my recommendation, they stopped using alcohol themselves to be role models for their adult children and grandchildren.

Several months after Jack and Patti had moved to a new city, Patti contacted her parents to say she wanted to move home. Jack had filed for divorce. Amid those unfortunate circumstances, Paul and Sally were delighted that she would move back and bring the grandchildren. They supported her so she could set up a new residence close to them. Patti continued to see her counselor and eventually began participating in Alcoholics Anonymous. As I write this, she has been sober for 10 years.

Positive outcomes

The Olson family business continues to grow and thrive. I helped them overcome their business issues as well as recognize and respond to their personal ones. The adult children continue to grow and mature in their roles at the company. Erik is the heir-apparent and is being groomed to take over as president when Paul retires. Lars eventually went back to college to get a degree and now works successfully outside of the family business.

This life-changing shift was made possible because we helped guide each family member to summon the courage to address, take action and resolve the issues facing them. “Stinking thinking” makes individuals irrational and abrasive. The family is walking on eggshells. They feel the unease, but are in denial about it. They are afraid to lose one another’s love or respect. They don’t want to rock the boat. They imagine only bad consequences will result from addressing the problem, not realizing that, unchecked, chemical abuse will always lead to bad outcomes.


Wherever there is chemical abuse, there is a huge loss in family intimacy, communication, management effectiveness and the ability to achieve problem resolution. This loss is magnified because the business is the family and effective relationships are the platform on which the continued success of both rests.

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.