How to Keep Family Business Tensions in Check

Date: July 03, 2013

Workplace issuesIn most offices, personal feelings are kept in check by the need for professional decorum. Take away that obligation and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.

That’s a big part of why family-owned businesses are such notorious feuding grounds. Rather than view each other as colleagues, these conglomerations of parents, siblings, cousins, and sundry other relatives behave more like, well, families. And that’s not always good.

Maybe that’s why fewer than 30% of family businesses survive to the second generation, and just 5% to the third, according to some estimates.

To keep a family enterprise functioning, business owners have to draw clear lines: Which issues come to work and which stay home? Who does what on the job? Here are six ways to lay down those must-draw lines for family-run businesses.

1. Spell out the roles for each family member. 

Abbey Dieteman of Dieteman Technology Consulting in Upstate New York brings marketing skills to the table while husband Frank has the technical chops. The two don’t always mesh. “He built our website, but with my marketing knowledge, I made significant changes shortly after,” Abbey says. “He would have one vision of how the site should look, I had another.”

Rather than let these professional differences spill over into a spousal spiral, they decided to divide and conquer. Now Frank handles site design while Abbey keeps the marketing message consistent. “When we made these distinctions, it saved a lot of hurt feelings or feeling that one or the other was the ‘boss,’” she says.

2. Don’t take liberties with the business. 

The family may own the business, but that doesn’t make it theirs to play with. To keep behaviors in check, and maintain employees’ respect, you’ve got to draw a line between the “needs” of the business and the “wants” of the clan.

“Make sure that family members do not come to believe the family business is their own playground,” says Jeffrey A. Asher, partner and estate planner with Robinson Brog Leinwand Greene Genovese & Gluck in New York. “No open access to checking accounts, no open-door policy for temporary jobs when the kids are on vacation. If the workers see the family disrespecting the boundaries of the job, then the workers will start taking their own liberties.”

Related: The Secrets to Family Business Survival

3. Keep home time separate.

No smartphones at the dinner table. No checking email after 8 o’clock. Leave work at work. Then put family bonding down in writing.

Get a diary, schedule in family time, and keep those times sacred. Dinner times, movie nights, social occasions: Put these on the calendar and stick to them. Not only will this ensure a healthy home life, but it also will give you opportunities to have personal, family-related discussions that don’t belong in the office.

4. Respect personalities and passions.

Ryan Eldridge is creative and passionate: He spawns ideas and wants to get them done. His wife Andrea is the practical one. Her analytic mind has earned her the sobriquet “The No Girl” in the couple’s onsite computer-repair business Nerds on Call, launched in a spare room in Redding, California, in March 2004.

“Ryan would hatch these lofty, imaginative plans to make our company unique and ‘instantly, wildly successful!’ My first response was always: That’s great honey. How are we going to pay for it?” Andrea recalls.

To make it work, they had to draw a hard line between his character and her personality. “What carries us through our battles over growth and innovation versus budget is a fundamental appreciation for what the other brings to our partnership,” she says. “It’s our dichotomy that makes our company successful. Without Ryan pushing me to innovate and take risks, the company would stagnate. Without my methodical analysis and insistence on contingency plans, we’d exhaust our resources and none of the plans would ever materialize.”

Related: How to Separate Work and Home Life When You Run a Home-Based Business

5. Get help.

Let’s face it: Not everyone is skilled at compartmentalizing. For some, the ability to keep personal issues from spilling over into the workplace will prove a heavy burden.

When that happens, find a Sherpa who can guide you over the rough terrain and help you to make the needed breaks, says Bruce Hodes, head coach with the Oak Park, Illinois, business consultancy CMI. “Go see a therapist and leave the business completely out of the equation,” he says.

6. Don’t be married.

Or at least don’t act like married people. “The use of pet names, touching, or affection in the office is off limits,” says Elizabeth Dodson of software maker HomeZada in El Dorado Hills, California. “Using maiden names oftentimes helps employees understand the importance and prioritization of business in the office.”

Do it right, and you’ll be able to draw a hard line between your personal and professional lives. This couple has had employees work for them for two years without ever knowing they were married.

Related: A Small Business Owner’s Guide to Divorce

Watch: Top 10 Things You Need to Know to Run a Successful Family Business

Related Content: Resources | Staffing | Workplace Policies

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