Disengaging 6 | Triangles

Disengaging 6 | Triangles

by | 'Sep 15, 2017' | Disengaging | 0 comments

The Cannon Springs Farm office at Potter Valley, 3:00 pm

Matthew Portman: Mom, when you have a moment I’d like to talk with you about how we’re going to deal with next year’s Muscat crop. I think that we should market it more widely—maybe even out of state. There may be other buyers who’d be interested in it for blends, or for other products besides wine. I think if we expand our potential customer base, we can improve our sales.

Joyce Cannon Portman: Matthew, you do whatever you want. At this point, frankly, I don’t care what you do. Your Uncle Peter made us grow that crop, so he should buy it. Since he’s refused to do what’s right, I wash my hands of it. Let him take down Cannon Springs Farm. Do whatever you want.


Matthew, on the phone, 3:15 pm

Matthew Portman: Uncle Peter, do you have a few minutes to talk?

Peter Cannon: Sure, though I’d rather not talk about that Muscat crop. Your mother just called me, irate again, and said it should be Cannon Bridge Winery’s obligation to buy the entire crop. Matthew, you and I both know that wasn’t the deal. You guys put it in on a suggestion, and then the market changed. Do you know what your mom said last week? That Pete Sr. would have required that we buy it, so I should honor him. Really? Sorry, Matthew, I know this is a tough situation, and I know you didn’t create it, and I’m really sorry you’re in the hot seat. But you do know that our buying the crop is a pipe dream, right? And, we’re in no position to do it, even if we wanted to.


The tasting room, Cannon Bridge Winery, 5:15pm

Peter Cannon: This thing about the Muscat crop is never going away. Joyce isn’t going to let it. Mia came home from Cannon Springs this afternoon complaining that Joyce has been ranting like a crazy lady. Grace has been helping her avoid Joyce by sending her out on errands whenever Joyce is in the Clear Lake office.

And, Joyce called, screaming about the Muscat. Matthew called right after, practically begging me to buy some of the harvest next year. I don’t like answering the phone these days.

Chi-Yu Cannon: Listen. This is Joyce’s obsession—you know you need to let it slide off your back. Honestly, Joyce’s tirades are not your problem. You didn’t create this situation. There are other markets for that Muscat, certainly.

And it’s not just you, by the way. I heard Jacob complaining to Dominic about Joyce earlier this afternoon. Peter, please remind him not to talk about family business in front of Dominic—it’s a private matter, plus Dominic doesn’t deserve the aggravation. Look, dear, I know this is trying, but please try to put it out of your mind so we can go have dinner. Jay and Mia are both home tonight and I want us to be a family together, without Joyce. I know this is stressful—let’s leave it behind and just try to enjoy the evening.


Matthew, calling as his dad leaves the hospital, 5:45 pm

Matthew Portman: Dad, would you please talk to Mom? This thing about the Muscat harvest is getting to be a big problem. Grace and I are doing our jobs, but Mom keeps interrupting me to rant about Uncle Peter and why he should be obligated to buy the crop. This situation makes me feel nostalgic for my time at the private equity fund, for god’s sake. I heard Mom complaining to Sara about it—and you know Sara doesn’t know anything about the business! It’s poisoning our relationships with Uncle Peter and his family—Mia is beginning to look worried every time I walk into the Clear Lake office. Mom needs to get over this.

Tom Portman: Take it easy, Matthew. Try not to internalize your mom’s fears. You know the Muscat stuff is your mom’s way of dealing with the fiscal issues at Cannon Springs, right? You’ll find a buyer and next year’s crop prices will be better and all this will calm down. Until then, we need to support her—she hasn’t had to deal with a business cycle this bad since before Pete Sr. died.

You know, he did the same thing—complained about the buyers all day long, even complained to their faces. Your grandmother was the only one who could calm him down. There was this time when Pete was trying to buy life insurance a couple of years before he died, and I told him he probably wouldn’t pass the physical. He was absolutely furious—at me, at the insurance company, at his lawyer. Totally irate. Your mom gets her temper from him, but it’s nothing compared to your grandfather’s. In fact, by comparison, your conversation with your mom was relaxing, I assure you.

I’m guessing Pete Sr. had plans for that insurance, just like your mom had plans for the Muscat money.

Family Business Governance Analysis:

This commentary focuses on a problem every family business—and every family—and pretty much every group—faces: Triangling.

From a family systems perspective, Triangling is a very common behavior for a group of people seeking to maintain homeostatic balance in a system. What does that mean? First, remember that families—and businesses—are systems. Members are interdependent, and they rely upon each other for the system to work. Second, systems seek equilibrium—families want to maintain emotional equilibrium and a set of norms. They want stability. Change can be very upsetting to a family and a family business. Generally speaking, everyone will do what they can to get on with life with a tolerable level of anxiety.

One of the leaders in the study of family systems was Dr. Murray Bowen, whose work lies at the foundation of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Bowen theory tells us there are five different coping mechanisms that family members might use to deal with anxiety in the family system:

  • Conflict (having arguments)
  • Distance (not speaking about an issue that raises anxiety)
  • Cut-off (a complete separation)
  • Reciprocity (taking on others’ anxiety)

The fifth, Triangling, is the topic of this Disengaging episode. Triangling means bringing in a third party to help with anxiety that involves another person. Matthew, seeking to deal with the financial problems Cannon Springs Farm is facing, suggests to Joyce that they think about expanding the marketing program for the Muscat harvest.  Instead of listening to his proposal, Joyce blows up (and there’s an example of Conflict, which turns into Distancing when Joyce tells him “do whatever you want, I wash my hands of it”).

Joyce’s anger, fear and anxiety in turn make Matthew anxious, and he picks up the phone. First, he calls his Uncle Peter, hoping that maybe Peter will change his mind about buying the Muscat, and thereby reduce the anxiety.  Matthew also probably just wants to vent a bit.  Peter, who as it happens has just gotten off the phone with an irate Joyce, is in no mood to talk about the issue, though he does try to calm Matthew down a bit by saying he’s sorry that Matthew has to deal with the situation (and there’s an example of Reciprocity—Peter tries to reduce Matthew’s anxiety by taking some of it on himself).

One of the important truths about Triangling is that it doesn’t make anxiety go away—it just moves it around. Perhaps Matthew felt better after his conversation with Peter, but Peter clearly didn’t, as his conversation with his wife, Chi-Yu, illustrates. Peter vents to Chi-Yu, passing his anxiety on to her.

Matthew, still feeling anxious, calls his father on his way home, asking Tom to help with Joyce. Tom provides some insight into the situation, by commenting that Joyce is doing exactly what Pete Sr. did when times were rough—Pete Sr. dealt with his anxiety by lashing out at others. “She comes by it honestly,” Tom notes.  Tom doesn’t agree to deal with the problem, though he may well speak with Joyce about it later. Instead, he explains it.  Joyce’s behavior isn’t mysterious, he suggests, it’s just the way they do things at Cannon Springs Farm.

But Matthew may well be asking, is “the way we do things” good enough?  He has posed a potentially productive idea—a possible solution—but been shut down, seemingly before the idea received any detailed consideration.

We can see that there is sometimes a legacy component to adaptation postures—next generations tend to use the same postures that their parents used. Joyce watched Pete Sr. blow up in difficult circumstances, and now she blows up like he did. This is the negative side of a family business legacy, and it can mean that unproductive responses to challenging situations can get hard wired into family systems in ways that can undermine the family and the business. The challenge here is to help Joyce, and the rest of the Cannon family, face the issues Cannon Springs Farm is experiencing, while finding a way to deal with the anxiety that is relentlessly bubbling up.

To be heard properly, Matthew may want to be more strategic—laying out his ideas in greater detail, picking a time of day when his mom is more likely to listen, vetting his ideas with others first, and then laying them out in a group meeting. From his days at the private equity fund, Matthew almost certainly has the professional skill set to present a different way of dealing with the challenges Cannon Springs is facing, and his efforts offer the possibility of a more positive outcome. Matthew recognizes that the equilibrium that the Cannon family system craves isn’t working. Can he find a way to present his ideas, help his mom deal with her anxiety and encourage real change in the Cannon family system?