A Simple Strategy to Build Better Relationships in Your Family Business


A Simple Strategy to Build Better Relationships in Your Family Business

I’m wondering which of these is your family business: Dream or Nightmare?  

I work with a lot of family businesses; be it husband and wife, parents and children, siblings or friends. And whether it’s by circumstances or choice, it can be great working with family and friends, but it can also be your worst nightmare.

So spare a thought for your poor staff who get caught in the middle of screaming matches and uncomfortable silences. Let alone hearing blame being flung around left, right and centre.

Where does it go wrong?

I’m often called in to help small business owners whose working and family relationships have broken down and they’re at a loss as to how to get it back on track.

In my experience, working and family relationships break down for 3 key reasons:

1. Lack of clarity about roles.

Lack of clarity includes legal/financial arrangements, what they agree to do, and should be doing in the business.

2. Lack of documentation about roles.

Lack of documentation about roles includes delegations around what everyone can and can’t do in the business.

Fixing reasons one and two are easy. It’s about investing time and energy into documenting simple systems. This includes an organisational chart, roles, key functions, delegations and simple procedures for each position. Otherwise, there will be resentment as family/friends are getting away with murder whilst staff are caught in the middle.

After the much needed change management, training and following through, your family business will start to thrive again.

Why does it start to thrive again? Because systems are all about ensuring people are being accountable for their decisions and actions, and following great systems and procedures.  And they can’t do this if they are not written down, clearly understood and agreed to by everyone.

3. Forgetting to take off the ‘Family/Friend Hat’ when they walk in the door.

This third reason is often the hardest so let me share with you a very familiar client story which shows how quickly communication can go off the rails.

Overstepping Boundaries.

Maybe you have friends and family members working in your small business, or maybe they’re your clients. How often do you put on and take off your family/friend hat at work?

I see a lot of arguments and frustration between family members or friends working together because too often, they put on the Family/Friend Hat instead of their Position Hat. And I understand there are certainly additional challenges when working with family and friends. But think about this:

If someone, other than your friend or family member, was in a position in your business, would you

  • Yell at them?
  • Disrespect them?
  • Talk down to them?
  • Ask more of them than what is outlined in the role they were employed to do?
  • Guilt them into doing things they don’t want to do, aren’t skilled to do or shouldn’t really be doing because it’s not in their role?

I’m hoping the answer is No, but my coaching experience tells me otherwise because unfortunately these frustrations are shared to me by many family members/friends; and their staff who are doing their best to stay out of the firing line.

One simple strategy to build a thriving family business.

When you’re having business conversations with a family member or friend, it’s critical to be clear. Whether you’re talking wearing your positional hat (eg CEO/Finance Manager) or family hat (eg Husband/Wife).

When I work with clients, I get them to physically bring in 2 hats so we can decide which one is the business hat and which one is the family/friend hat.  We can then physically take one off and put the other one on to show how much they intertwine.

I also get them to start conversations like this:

Before we start, I’d like to talk to you about some things in the business. Is it OK to please take off our family/friend hats and put on our [insert your positions] hats? 

By doing this, I’ve gained permission and set boundaries and clarity about who is talking to whom. It also reminds everyone we are in a workplace and not at home (even though I hope there’s not arguments happening at home either).

Uh-oh the family hat comes back on.

Sometimes what happens is that without you being aware of it the good old family/friend hat comes back on again. This is where I step in again and stop the conversation to say something like:

I believe the family/friend hat has been put on. So can we please take that back off again to continue the business conversation; or do we need to take off the work hat to resolve the family/friend issue first, and come back to the business hats?

This shows people how easily they are bringing home/relationships into the workplace, and the need to keep the workplace professional; not only for their relationships but to keep your other staff happy and productive rather than feeling like they’re walking on eggshells.

This one simple strategy can not only help you build better working relationships but make your workplace (and family relationships) thrive.

No business is worth losing family and friends over so please be mindful of ensuring everyone takes their Family/Friend Hats off as they walk through the door every single day.  Your staff, family members, friends and your small business will thank you for it.

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