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When Family Members Work Together

Follow these tips to manage employees who also happen to be kin.
January 10, 2005
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/75272

You say you've got some issues with the family members you work with? What's the problem? You're all family-you should be able to get along together.

But that's where you're wrong. Because no matter what your business is-selling, buying, servicing or producing-the challenges of working with family members are the same. And they're not often easy to deal with.

Special issues crop up in family-run businesses that don't occur anywhere else. Or the same issues you see in non-family businesses seem more intense in a family-run company. Just what are these issues I'm referring to? Here are a few of the more common ones:

1. Birth order: The "older brother" or "older sister" syndrome involves people viewing the eldest child as more powerful, more "special" or more entitled due to their birth order at the head of the pack.

2. Position nepotism: The sons or daughters of the founder or of the eldest founder gets special treatment due to their relation to the founder.

3. Teacher's pet: Mommy or Daddy's favorite, used to getting his or her own way, continues to be favored. Siblings often become jealous or angry.

4. Inner-family fraternizing: Some relatives and their spouses have favorite relatives with whom they socialize and interact outside the workplace. Or the opposite occurs: Some relatives and their spouses never get along well with other members of the family. These feelings, both positive and negative, invariably spill over into the work setting.

5. Family feud: Family rivalry to succeed and be "the best" in order to gain favor with or praise from powerful or otherwise important relatives is intense, non-collaborative and, at times, destructively competitive.

These are just a few of the interpersonal dynamics that often occur in family businesses. Fortunately, there are approaches you can take that will minimize-and even erase-the negative aspects of working with your relatives.

First, follow the golden rule: Make sure that everything that occurs, including the delegation of authority and responsibility, decision-making, promotions, rewards, demotions, praise and salary increases, is based on concrete and clearly stated knowledge, skills, abilities and personality traits. These factors must be at the very foundation of every business activity. If they're not, the five negative dynamics mentioned above will begin to creep into your business and end up being destructive and counter-productive.

Second, leave your family issues at home. While this can often seem impossible, it must be attempted. Relatives may have grown up together, may have played, competed, collaborated, loved and hated each other at one time, but the workplace is not an environment in which you and your relatives should play out or resolve your childhood or adult dramas.

Instead, each family member should strive to interact with other relatives involved in the business in the same neutral manner they use when interacting with non-family members. If they can't manage to do that, then when trust is called for in problem solving or collaborating, it will be all too easy for them to recall what happened "when we were kids," or "when your son hit my son" or "when your wife and my husband had an argument." If they can't manage a non-neutral stance, expect disaster ahead for your work environment and your work outcomes.

Third, you must establish clear channels for communication. There are always ways to thwart the system-to go to a favorite relative to get the task resolved. Invariably, this means going over or around the proper individual. And that can seem preferable, especially if the proper individual is a relative who is not well liked. But that shouldn't be allowed. And while this action also occurs in non-family encounters, it's too easy to allow it to occur in family businesses; the inevitable result is that the individual being avoided discovers that a relative has bypassed the proper channel. When this happens, old family rivalries and patterns emerge that can further complicate an already complicated issue.

The best way to avoid these and similar experiences is to drop interpersonal dislikes and deal directly with the individual involved. Based on our earlier rule, the goal is to treat family and non-family alike in all situations.

When entrepreneurs take these factors into consideration, family-run businesses can operate more smoothly with increased output and decreased tensions.