Be Wary of Asymmetry Wherever It Lurks

A subject that’s been coming up in my work a lot recently is the idea of symmetry, and how important it can be for families.

In reality, it’s one of those things that’s more noticeable in its absence; that is, when asymmetry crops up and needs to be dealt with, that’s when it becomes apparent.

Please bear with me as I explain where I’m going this week, because I’m introducing some vocabulary that’s personal to me, meaning that I’m not sharing ideas from others, but my own.

Let’s start with a fact that most people appreciate about a standard family diagram (or genogram), which shows a family drawn as a series of generations, one flowing beneath the other, in succeeding waves down the page.

Because of this, I like to refer to the relationships between generations as “vertical” due to the way they’re portrayed.


Moving on to the Horizontal Part

So if the relationships that involve those from one generation to the next are vertical, it then stands to reason that those between siblings, drawn on the diagram along the same line, are those we would label as “horizontal”.

By my understanding, the concept of symmetry involves things being balanced around a central line, like a person’s face, for example.

To be sure, I Googled “symmetry” and happily found this to corroborate my thinking:  

                   “the quality of being made up of exactly similar 

                       parts facing each other or around an axis”

That’s close enough for my standards.


But Aren’t All the Siblings Different?

Of course anyone who has siblings or who has children can tell you how different each sibling is, even though they come from the same pair of parents.

The most dangerous kind of asymmetry that I harp on with families is “information asymmetry”, which happens all the time, and is impossible to fully eliminate.

Before we go too much further, I want to recall the Three Circle Model and remind everyone that we can and should look at enterprising families in terms of the three major systems of which they are composed, namely: family, business, and ownership.


Family and Business Asymmetry

Every parent is familiar with the concept of trying to treat all their children equally, or as similarly as possible, at least in age appropriate ways.  

We strive to find the right balance and are always trying to make sure things don’t get too far out of whack in the family.

In a business, it’s acceptable to have some hierarchy in your structure, but more often than not, siblings are put into roles that are relatively close in stature, wherever possible.

So if asymmetry shows up naturally and is tolerable in plenty of families and businesses, what’s the big deal?


Are We Forgetting Something?

Of course we’ve yet to explore the ownership circle, and this is where the biggest dangers lie.

The whole idea of ownership is already too easily overlooked.  See Ownership: The Forgotten Circle of Family Business

Not only is ownership not discussed enough, but sibling relationships are also not highlighted enough in family business continuity discussions, because everyone prefers to focus on the vertical relationships between the generations instead.

When you think about it, our sibling relationships are almost always the longest lasting relationships of our lives.  

While parents and their offspring are lucky to get 4 or 5 decades together, brothers and sisters typically get 7 or 8.


Ownership Information Asymmetry – Red Light Flashing

Having noted that siblings are all a bit different in a family and roles in the business are normally not identical, it’s in the area of ownership that each person’s stake will most likely be identical.

I know that there are plenty of exceptions, but as a general rule, siblings end up with identical stakes in their family’s enterprises, because of a desire for fairness, which is easy to understand.

But because people hold differing roles with respect to the management of the assets, they end up with much different levels of knowledge of what’s going on with everything the family owns.

I regularly see instances of “insiders” versus “outsiders” in sibling groups that can become a huge issue if not addressed.

The onus is on those insiders to do whatever they can to rebalance this information asymmetry, by willingly and openly sharing as much as possible with their siblings.

Over-communicating is almost always better than under-communicating. Please don’t forget that.