The basic problem is that families lack the constraints and boundaries that exist in a normal workplace.

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Q: My sister and I work with our mother and father in a successful family business. Although outsiders view us as an exemplary professional family, the reality is that we are in constant conflict. Sis and I often disagree with our parents, and we have a strong sibling rivalry which produces frequent arguments.

I’m sure that many business families experience these issues, but I don’t know how to resolve them. If we could learn to listen and respect each other, perhaps we could figure out how to work together. My sister stubbornly denies that we have problems, but the tension is driving me crazy. How can we fix this?

A: “Family business” borders on being an oxymoron, so you are correct in assuming that others have similar difficulties. However, that doesn’t make your own problem any less painful.

The basic problem is that families lack the constraints and boundaries that exist in a normal workplace. Instead of moderating their behavior to conform to professional norms, relatives often fight and argue as they would at home. Decision-making becomes an agonizing process, especially if roles and responsibilities are poorly defined.

Because your company is successful, the family has obviously done many things right. However, the current level of dissension does not bode well for the future. Studies have found that only 30 percent of family businesses transition to the next generation, and uncontrolled conflict further reduces those odds.

To turn this around, everyone must first agree to grow up and start acting like mature adults. Ground rules should be established for communication, conflict resolution and collaborative decision-making. Some companies drop family titles (mom, dad, sis, etc.) and use only first names at work.

In many family enterprises, no one has ever worked anywhere else, resulting in a general lack of management knowledge. Fortunately, this deficit can be remedied with books, workshops, online resources, or mentoring organizations. SCORE, a nonprofit group affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration, is an excellent source of information and advice.

A shared understanding of sound management practices can help to remove family dynamics from business discussions. For topics that push everyone’s hot buttons, hire an experienced facilitator to guide the conversation. But
if the bickering continues unabated, a family therapist might be the ultimate solution.

Q: Our boss is easily influenced by a very assertive co-worker. Whenever “Gwen” offers an opinion, he automatically goes along. Recently, an employee who resigned sent a complaint about our boss’s management style to human resources. Now Gwen is telling everyone to go to HR and support him. No one wants to do this, but we don’t know how to refuse. What should we do?

A: Sounds like you and your colleagues have something in common with your wimpy manager. Apparently, all of you are afraid to stand up to Gwen. However, you can easily reject her current demand with a short, direct response.

For example: “Gwen, you are more than welcome to go to HR yourself, but the rest of us prefer not to get involved.” If Gwen pushes the issue, politely end the conversation by saying that you must get back to work. And if she brings it up again, simply repeat this process.