When working alongside family members is good, it's very good. But when it's bad, it's dysfunctional. That, in a nutshell, defines the experience of working in a family business, according to those who punch the clock with siblings, offspring, or parents.
In some respects, they say, it's easy. After all, you implicitly trust and care about your co-workers when you're working with Dad or Sis. But it can be difficult on days when the line that separates business and personal lives melts away, and feelings are exposed.
How can you make sure the good days outnumber the bad? Here, say the experts, are a few rules to start with:
1. Don't hold a grudge. Do you still seethe when you remember how your brother ran over the family cat 20 years ago? Discuss it, get it out of the way, and move on, says Matt LeFaivre, president of J.R. LeFaivre Construction, in Taneytown, Md., who works with his father, sister, and brother (pictured).
“You have to be willing to let things go,” he says. “You can think about it all you want at a family picnic. But when you're at work, it's business.”
James Lea, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a family-business adviser, says grudges need to be brought out into the sunlight where they can be scrubbed clean. Otherwise, those memories can create conflict down the road. “You need to be able to say, ‘This is what's really bothering me.' If you don't do that,” he says, “the issue continues to simmer.”
Sure signs that a grudge is getting in the way? One brother always finding something wrong with another brother's ideas. A daughter consistently letting work slide.
“These are the manifestations of things tucked down deep,” Lea says. He recommends finding an impartial facilitator to help work through it.
2. Pull down the shutters after 5:30 p.m. “I think one of the things family members don't do enough of is sit down and say, ‘No more business talk for a while; let's be a family,'” Lea says. “There's always one person who has a compulsion to talk about the business at the dinner table or on the ride to Grandma's house. They can't turn it loose. It's such a central part of their lives that they talk and talk and talk.”
When that happens, break the cycle by changing the subject — gracefully. LeFaivre says he and his family try not to discuss business at every family function. And when it does happen, he says to the lapsing family member, “I know this is important, but this is not the time to talk about it.”