Surviving a crisis as a family business – communication is key

“YOU’RE on mute” . . . .

In many ways this phrase, which has become ubiquitous in this past year, sums up one of the key challenges faced by family businesses since the beginning of the Covid crisis – namely, how to ensure our message gets heard by family members, staff, customers and suppliers when our normal patterns of communication have been disrupted so significantly.

And successful communication provides certainty.

In a recent all-Ireland study from DCU’s National Centre for Family Business, along with Ulster University Business School, employees of family businesses were interviewed, alongside chief executives.

Those employees who received clear communications from their leadership teams were found to be more certain about the future of the business and their job status within this business.

In undertaking this study, we were keen that some useful practical learning could be extracted that may help family firms navigate this next phase as effectively as possible, with three key points suggested by CEO’s.

1. Choose clarity and candour over charisma – trust is vitally important in times of crisis and it helps when leaders can be honest about where things stand. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability, transparency and provide reassurance where possible.

2. Give your team what the need, when they need it. In the early days of the crisis, people’s capacity to absorb information may have been limited so the message should have been focused on keeping the listener healthy and safe. As the information needs evolve in a crisis, so should a good communicator's messaging. Different forms of information can help listeners to stay safe, cope mentally, and connect to a deeper sense of purpose and stability.

3. Finally, with families themselves involved in the running of the family firm, it is imperative that intentional time and space is created for safe and effective communication, both one-on-one and as a group. As we begin to emerge again from lockdown, this may be a useful time to consider a family business council or family charter to help set out the rules of engagement for family members.

The other issue family firms must consider is the communication rituals that get built up by how families themselves communicate – this can often be a help or hinderance to effective communication with non-family staff and wider stakeholders. People wear different hats, particularly in family firms where you can wear the family hat, the ownership hat or the management hat.

Thinking about your own family upbringing, your family communication style is likely to be either a conversation orientation or conformity orientation (Koerner and Fitzpatrick, 2002)

Families with high conversation orientation will spend a lot of time talking to each other and family members are encouraged to share their individual activities, thoughts, and feelings. This typically lends itself to more open communication, new ideas and even innovation.

On the other hand, families with high conformity orientation tend to stress a climate of homogeneity of attitudes, values, and beliefs which can be useful in avoiding conflict and having a singularity of purpose.

Both styles can be seen to have their benefits, especially when navigating an era defining crisis, but key for family firm leaders is reflecting on and understanding how to use their communication orientation as a source of strength in the right circumstances.

I have recorded a podcast alongside colleagues at Dublin City University, a more in-depth discussion on effective communications in family businesses which you might find useful to listen to. To access, visit

:: Dr Ian Smyth is a lecturer in human resource management at Ulster University Business School.