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Close Encounters

Just how much family togetherness is too much?
Magazine Contributor
5 min read

This story appears in the July 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It's obvious: The more time you spend with family members, the more your lives overlap. That's why relatives who work together have an especially keen awareness of each other. Their close daily contact gives them the opportunity to talk about personal topics they wouldn't broach if, say, they only talked on the phone once a week. They can read each other's body language so well, they can tell how the others are feeling without having to ask. And they talk among themselves, so if one sibling knows that another is having marital problems, for example, he may share that information with another sibling so they can take some work off the shoulders of the sibling under stress.

This private verbal and nonverbal communication is the glue of family businesses. It helps relatives stay connected, supports their individual and collective needs, and allows them to share the vision that drives the company. Without the closeness, disagreements mushroom into disputes and people pull in different directions.

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).

Closing In

Problems arise when togetherness becomes extreme and family members become too involved in each other's lives. "This can be especially stifling for young people in a family business," says Leslie Dashew, a family business consultant in Atlanta and author of The Best of the Human Side (Beowulf Publishing). "They wind up being smothered by their families at the very age they need to separate from them." The result: They're turned off by the family business.

The lack of privacy can have other negative effects as well. Spouses, for example, may build up resentment and jealousy. They feel "out of it"--less important in their spouse's life than the spouse's siblings or parents. Noninvolved parents and children of the family businessperson may also feel they're considered inconsequential and that the family members in the business take priority.

You know you're too enmeshed in the family business when it creates problems in your household. "You can also see symptoms of how too much togetherness can be detrimental to the business," says Joe Paul, a family business consultant in Portland, Oregon, and a member of the Aspen Family Business Group. He identifies these red flags:

  • Members of the family business are so in tune with each other's emotional states that when one panics, the others do, too.
  • Decision-making is slowed to a halt because of the need to have everyone in the family "on board."
  • All the family members can be swayed by one person's poor or radical idea because they don't want to make waves.

Drawing Healthy Boundaries

In some cultures, the extended family unit is the norm, and the idea of individual privacy would be laughed at, says Paul. "But that's not so in the majority of family businesses in the United States," he says.

For the most part, relatives who work in a family business need to live personal lives on their own turf. Michael Schuster would agree, although he was still shocked initially when his daughter Catherine and her husband, Blair Kolkoski, announced they were moving to Kansas City, Missouri. Catherine and Blair had been working for the Scottsdale, Arizona, company Schuster founded in 1978, The Center for Professional Development, a business school dedicated to helping dentists with the development of their practices. "Now I've come to realize it was a healthy thing . . . and right for them," Schuster says. Blair and Catherine are still working for the company (as are Catherine's three sisters and one brother-in-law)--he as a recruiter and she in marketing support. But the Kolkoskis are doing it in the privacy of their own state.

Staying connected with the family while still being separate need not be as dramatic as the Kolkoski example--as long as family members are conscious of the boundaries between the family business and their personal lives. Dashew suggests some appropriate personal boundaries to draw:

  • Keep private information private. Decide what information about you and your immediate family to keep private and what information the rest of the family can or should know. Many people feel their religious beliefs and participation, their sex lives, and how they raise their children, for example, are subjects that are not open to family discussion or debate. Says Laura Fullerton, one of the Schuster daughters who works in the family business: "Even though I'm very close to my parents and sisters, when I got married, my loyalties changed a bit. Now I share my innermost thoughts with my spouse, not my family."
  • Develop relationships outside the family. When families are too close, they push others out. People need to have their own personal relationships that the rest of the family isn't a part of. "Otherwise, family members look to each other to satisfy all their needs," says Dashew, "and that doesn't work."
  • Make your own decisions about what you will do with your resources. "We define our values by the use of our resources," says Dashew. So while a person may talk about what he or she does with money, time and energy, decisions about these resources should be made only by that individual.

The balance between getting too involved and being too separate is a challenge when you work in a family business. "It's easy to drift into [too much] togetherness when you like and respect each other and spend so much time together," says Paul. To ensure that doesn't happen, family members need to "get a life"--private and social--outside the family.


Contact Sources

Aspen Family Business Group,,,

The Center for Professional Development, (800) 288-9393,

Leslie Dashew, c/o The Human Side of Enterprise, 210 Interstate North Pkwy., #700, Atlanta, GA 30339, (404) 252-7113.

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