Brotherly Love?

Minimize sibling rivalry before it hurts your business.
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the January 1998 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

How do you show your brother that you love him?" a therapist asked an 8-year old.

"You tell him . . . and then you punch him in the back."

Such behavior seems altogether normal when brothers and sisters are children. But what if the adult children are in the family business--and they're still pummeling each other with words and deeds?

Competition among siblings runs deep. This type of rivalry is natural and can even be beneficial to a business, as long as it doesn't go too far. "When it gets so intense that a parent has to step in, you can assume both adult siblings are at fault," says Ronald Reece, an organizational psychologist and co-owner of Behavior Resources Inc., a psychological counseling firm in Greenville, South Carolina.

Separating fighting children was tough when they were young; it requires even more strength and determination when they're older--and in business together. "Even as adults, [siblings are] still in a power struggle for attention and approval," says Kathy Wiseman, a family business consultant and president of organizational development firm Working Systems in Washington, DC. And giving in to them feeds into this childish behavior, she says. "It's better to say something like `This fight is between you and your brother. As long as you're working here, you'll have to find a way to work it out.' "

Very often, young adult siblings have little understanding of problem-solving or conflict resolution techniques. If that's the case, they may need coaching from a consultant on how to arrive at a productive agreement--one that separates the problem from the relationship and one that produces a solution better than either of them could develop alone.

Sometimes a caring but neutral person is the best one to offer a business perspective to ongoing conflicts. That's the route the siblings who run Lloyd's Moving Co. Inc., a 68-year-old business in Philadelphia, take when they have disagreements. "A family friend, who's also a savvy business consultant, sits in on our family meetings," says Tina King, one of the Lloyd siblings and three principals. "When there's friction, she takes the emotion out of it, turning it into a business problem, not a personal one. Because we all respect her and know she cares about us as a family, it works."

According to Reece, if siblings' fights become destructive to a business, a parent may have no option but to say "One of you is going to have to go."

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).

Preventive Maintenance

By using a wide assortment of tools from their parental tool box, however, parents can often keep sibling conflict from getting to the point at which the business suffers. Here are some ideas:

  • Respect differences. "Our daddy [Isaac Thomas Lloyd, the founder of Lloyd's Moving Company] used to say, `The head needs the neck, and the neck needs the shoulders.' We try to keep that in mind when we work together," says King. Whether the siblings work in similar positions or different ones, parents have to be mindful not to pit one child's abilities against the other's. The company's success is dependent on many different talents.
  • Don't shuttle information back and forth. If one of the children complains to you about another or tells you something unflattering about another, Reece suggests one of two methods for handling it. Either absorb and forget it, or toss it back by saying something like "He's your brother. What are you going to do about it?"
  • Emphasize that the company benefits each member of the family--and future generations. Says King, "Our father instilled in us the belief that as long as the job gets done, we shouldn't care who gets the credit for it. We'll all benefit." If this advice is internalized by the children, it will be a guiding force even when a parent is no longer around to mediate disputes.
  • Establish guidelines to help reduce rivalry. Well-thought-out business policies eliminate the need for many subjective decisions, such as who should enter the business and when or what level of respect and interaction is expected. Subjective decisions only fuel childlike reactions of "you do that for her but don't do it for me."
  • Encourage each sibling to participate in the achievements of the other. If one sibling is awarded a sales promotion, for example, the whole family should be involved in the celebration. "As long as the family has to share the pain of business problems, they should share the glory of each other's successes, too," says Reece.

Though parents would like to avoid it, they have to understand that sibling rivalry has existed since Cain and Abel. All they can do is set the stage for the tension to be productive and dynamic, and help the children learn to appreciate and support each other for the good of the business.

Contact Sources

Behavior Resources Inc., 18 Lavinia Ave., Greenville, SC 29601, fax: (864) 233-3706

Lloyd's Moving Co. Inc., (215) 473-0442, fax: (215) 477-9384

Working Systems, 2000 L St. N.W., #522, Washington, DC 20036, (202) 659-2222


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