In recent times, public media has repeatedly portrayed next-generation family business members apologizing or offering reparations for past wrongdoings. These behaviours regularly indicate the experience of guilt. EDHEC Family Business Research Centre conducted a research on Moral Emotions in Family Businesses by exploring the Vicarious Guilt of the Next Generation. The peer-reviewed article is co-authored by Fabian Bernhard, Associate Professor at the EDHEC Family Business Centre and Rania Labaki, Associate Professor of Management and Director of the EDHEC Family Business Centre. The results of this research are explained below:


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Measure Vicarious Guilt in family business

The research answers two main questions:

Why next generation members respond emotionally to perceived unethical business practices of the past? How such moral emotions can influence ethical decision making in the family business?

To respond to these questions, researchers surveyed next-generation members of large Western family businesses belonging to an international family business association, between 18 and 39 years old, who either play or will potentially play an active business role in the future. The participants had to reflect on a scenario described in the questionnaire. The answers allowed the researchers to measure guilt as a central moral emotion as well as other relevant variables identified in the literature review.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards

This quote of Søren Kierkegaard (1997) summarized well the results of this research:

- Investigating the past can help uncover emotional dynamics that drive family business behaviours.

- Moral emotions and particularly guilt can build the foundations of how families in business develop their socioemotional stock that influence business-relevant decisions.

- This guilt can be transgenerational, separating wrong-doers from those who experience guilt. It means that the family business members’ emotions can be vicarious and intertwined with other family members’ past wrongdoings.

- Nevertheless, strong identification with the family can block the emergence of this prosocial and moral emotion of guilt.

- That’s why, the next-generation members have to think about their identification with the family as it can obstruct important learnings from history.

- Guilt can pave the way for families in business to seek more responsible business practices such as reparative actions, apologies, and change in business practices.

In a nutshell

The less identified the next generation is with the family, the more likely vicarious guilt emerges. Guilt then leads to intentions of more responsible behaviours, such as reparative actions, apologies, and change in business practices.


The original article published in Family Business Review can be accessed here.