Oct 23, 2012
By Vikki Stark, Psychotherapist, Marriage Counsellor, Family Therapist, Divorce Counsellor and featured expert on Episode 2, Season 2. Find out more about Vikki Stark
To outsiders, the prospect of working in a family business conjures up a vision of a workplace that is both nurturing and fulfilling in theory. You're in business with people who care deeply about you and your needs - who won't raise an eyebrow if you have to leave early to pick up a sick kid from school. If the business succeeds, the family succeeds. You have job security - no risk of being let go and replaced by someone else with better credentials. You're an insider, so your word is listened to and you can make a difference. You can trust your family unconditionally.
Or can you?
This idealized view of a family business doesn't take into account what we know about families in general - in many cases, nothing can make you more miserable than being with your family. And spending 9 to 5 every day with those same people magnifies the intensity of that dynamic. We know that many families are rife with disrespect and power struggles that ebb and flow but always are in evidence, and families in business together are no different.
One of the biggest challenges for family businesses is the undefined nature of the relationships. Typically family members are absorbed into the company fold without any formal hiring process and then are not provided with a clear job description that defines what is expected of them. The old family hierarchy, established since the day you were born, is often fixed in cement so there is little flexibility with regard to roles. Growing up, parents and older siblings have more decision making power than younger ones, whether it's where the family will live or who gets to sleep in the top bunk, and altering those deeply sub-conscious patterns is close to impossible.
There is a balance between the potentially tremendous advantages and soul-destroying drawbacks of working in a family business that keeps people stuck - not feeling that they have the maneuverability to take the reins of their work life and fulfill themselves in that sphere of existence. But in any rigid family system, there is always some wiggle room if you are willing to challenge the status quo and risk getting into a position where you may have to leave and venture out on your own.
To make a family business system healthy, you must strive for clarity. That means defining everything and putting it all down on paper. Writing a mission statement, a vision for the current year and for the future years, the roles of each person involved, job descriptions, formal partnership agreements, succession planning and anything else that needs definition. Of course, that's easier said than done, but as with any system, sometimes you need strong medicine to make a sick entity well again.
That is a daunting prospect - if you could do that easily, you would have a healthy family business in the first place. You need to have a formal procedure for conflict resolution - whether it has to do with business decisions or personal relationships, and you may need to locate the correct go-to person outside the organization to help you gain a fresh perspective and learn new skills of relating. Having the will to accomplish full clarity and transparency among family members is key and just making the pledge that you will attempt to achieve that goal is the first step. Then do whatever it takes to make it happen!