Working with members of your family has the potential to be a very trying, sticky and challenging situation. It can bring out the best in you and your relatives--and also the worst in your working relationships. It can cause you to minimize or overlook errors or omissions that your relative commits, or it can make you excessively hypercritical and condescending.

Just why does this happen? Working with family members is difficult for any number of reasons:

  • You know so much about the other person--you've been privy to intimate information about them.
  • You've most likely had arguments or negative conflicts with them.
  • You have years of experiences with them, both positive and negative.
  • You know the other person's "hot and cold buttons," the thoughts, feelings and behaviors that reward, cajole and pacify, or punish, threaten and dismiss the other person.
  • Maybe you don't like your relative or, conversely, you're very close with that person, which means you could either be overly critical or overly protective of them.
  • You may provide too much supervision or teamwork--or you may provide too little.

As a result of the knowledge and closeness you have with this other person, you may find it difficult to be rational, logical, accurate or fair with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors when it comes to interacting with that person. Your relationship with them--both at work and in your personal life--is probably suffering.

So how do you begin to correct the situation? First, you need to approach the other person and acknowledge that the current relationship isn't working optimally, that something is either "too right" or "too wrong," too positive or too negative. Then you need to discuss the impact your behaviors or attitudes are having on other employees and the company as a whole. Third, you need to agree to meet together or with an experienced, neutral, fearless and objective HR manager or external consultant. Fourth, it's important that you both agree that you're going to work together to improve and maximize the current relationship for your own sake as well as the sake of the organization.

Next, you both need to agree that you want to work toward making the working atmosphere more professional and less personal. You have to agree not to allow your personal feelings, either positive or negative, to enter into the office place. But be warned: These tactics will only work if you empower someone you trust, including another relative, to step in and stop actions that appear to be based on irrational feelings, either positive and negative (in other words, actions that you're taking that overlook or are overly critical of your relative's behavior).

Sixth, you need to clarify the specific goals each of you agrees to meet so that behaviors and attitudes are directed toward meeting the company's goals and mission. Ensure that any statement of goals you create is specific, can be measured and assessed, and can be successfully achieved.

The next step is to make sure that your roles are carefully, objectively, rationally and completely described to ensure optimal clarity by all individuals for all roles. This is an especially critical step because it's very common that working relationships fall apart when this step has not been taken. When employees at any level are confused about "who is responsible for what," conflict and misunderstandings result, and productivity, employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction all decrease. To avoid this morass, you must spend time working on making each individual's explicit obligations. This facet of working together refers not only to each person's tasks and responsibilities, but also to each person's reporting relationships and source of power and influence, including their time, salary and bonuses, employees and equipment.

The eighth tip is to clarify the work processes that will be used on a daily basis: the process for making decisions, including who can make what kind of decisions, who is involved in these steps, and how decisions are to be made (by an individual, a pair or small group). Another process to consider is how to communicate with others and, in particular, which others. Basically, this aspect refers to just who is included in the communications loop and why. Are all the key players to be kept up to date about occurrences? Are key people being left out of the communications loop for reasons of power or jealousy? Are inappropriate people being brought into the loop for reasons of patronage?

The ninth tip is to build trust. Start by acknowledging the current situation. You'll be appreciated and valued for discussing a topic that others know about but are reluctant to bring up. Make sure that others can trust what you're saying and doing by backing up your thoughts and actions with clarity and explanations. Then, when you make a commitment to change the status quo, do what you're saying and say what you're doing. Make sure your actions speak for themselves, and when they don't, offer clear explanations. In addition, act with integrity, honesty and truthfulness in all that you do.

Above all, make certain that you're competent in all that you do. Ensure that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform at a high level. If you don't, get some training, find a mentor, or redesign your tasks and responsibilities to align them with what you do best. Nothing destroys trust faster than incompetence. As you can see, trust is potentially the strongest element in any relationship. Without it, organizations fall apart.

The tenth and final tip involves showing the positive quality of interpersonal relationships. Just because you're related to someone doesn't mean you need to love them or worship them, especially on the job. Nor does it mean that the company is a playground for working out family problems. What is required is that you demonstrate respect for other people, especially your relatives. You needn't be fawning or ostentatious with your praise or criticism of them, but you do need to be professional and appropriate, whatever the true nature of your feelings and attitudes toward others, especially family.

Portions of this article were adapted from Shonk's Work in Groups which is now out of print.