Admitting when things aren't quite 'right' between family members

communication difficult conversations difficult times family business in five succession top tips Jan 24, 2022

So your website talks about how proud you are to be a family business. Team photos of key family members and a lovely 'family history' timeline with black and white photos of generations before.  

You build on the fact that that you're a family-run company, trusted for years by loyal customers. Your name is above the door which means your reputation matters to you.

You keep pushing this message in all of your marketing because you know it makes a difference to the people who buy from you.  

Yet every time you say the words 'we're proud to be a family business' or 'we trust each other implicitly because we're family', a little knot forms in your stomach. You feel like a fraud. 

Because deep down, you know that things between you and another family member aren't quite 'right'. It might be your son, or your brother, or your Mum and Dad. 

Behind the smiling family photo on the website, tensions are bubbling away underneath the surface. If only people knew, eh? 

But instead of tackling things head-on, the day-to-day running of the business becomes a distraction. You don't deal with the uncomfortable feeling you have every day when you walk into the office. You simply start talking to each other about sales or operations. Anything that doesn't involve an honest, emotional conversation about what's truly going on. In fact, you haven't talked as 'family' for a long time. 

So what's the root of the problem?

A family issue outside of the business

Your two wives have had a disagreement, for example. Or an issue between Mum and the son's new girlfriend. You obviously want to stick by yours, and they want to stick by theirs. Which makes things pretty awkward at work. So you just skirt around things and don't get too deep. 

You want different things

You've both been working in the company for a while but when it comes to talking about plans for the future you both want different things. Which makes it pretty difficult when making big decisions about the company. You want to invest in machinery, they want to take a big dividend this year. You want to embrace new technology to make you more efficient, they're wedded to the old way of doing things by hand and to staff who have been there for years. 

They're not behaving or performing as you'd expect

You made the assumption that, because they're family, they'd treat the business in exactly the same way as you. Put in the hours, make a commitment, act as an ambassador because their name is above the door.

But instead, it turns out they just want a 9-5. There's no going the extra mile. No stepping-up because they feel proud to share the family name. It might be your son, your daughter, your nephew. When they joined, you had grand plans of them taking over from you as the next leader when you eventually retire.

But the way things are going, you can't even trust them to do their current job. Let alone anything else. In fact, they cause you more of a headache than other non-family employees. 

Nobody knows what's happening because nobody talks about the future

The oldest problem in the book. When it comes to talking about the future, family businesses are notoriously bad at having honest conversations. They'd rather bury their head in the sand than actually have to deal with making difficult decisions. When is Mum or Dad going to retire? Which of the kids is going to be the next leader? Are they capable? Is the business stable enough financially? 

The problem when nobody knows what's happening is that people get frustrated and resentful. They feel like everything they do is futile and don't know what they're contributing towards. It's especially difficult for the next generation who are trying to make decisions about their own lives, for their own families. 

But trying to keep a smiling face around the table on Sunday afternoon with your parents becomes increasingly difficult when you just want to scream 'Dad, are you actually thinking about retiring at any point soon?' or 'The business is seriously struggling - what the hell are we going to do about it?'.

So how do you get UNSTUCK? 

Quite frankly, if you don't tackle this now then you can say goodbye to a successful, thriving family business. Because no matter how small or petty the issue seems now, it will only become amplified with every day that goes past.  

Sit down together away from the business

Ask them for an hour of their time to try and resolve what's going on. Sit down in Starbucks, go for a walk together... just make sure its away from the company. Somewhere you both feel comfortable speaking the truth without fear of staff or customers overhearing. 

If you are the first person to admit there's a problem, you can be sure the other person will feel a huge sense of relief. It will be keeping them awake as much as it is you.

If the issue is something concerning family members outside of the business that can't be easily and quickly resolved, agree a plan to stop it creeping into the company. Whilst you might be on different sides at home, you're both playing for the same team when it comes to building and growing your family business. So keep the two things separate. 

Use someone independent to mediate

If things have got so bad that you can't be in the same room together without it descending into a heated argument, use someone to mediate the conversation. It can be a mutual friend, a manager in your business that you trust or an external advisor like me. 

Whatever happens, make sure you don't leave before getting everything off your chest. Even if you just take baby steps, you'll both feel a million times better for saying things out loud.

You'll also get to hear the other person's point of view. Make sure you're opening to listening because you might soon realise that not everything is as black and white as you once thought. 

Forwards ever, backwards never

You've already done the hard bit. Now that you've made the first step towards improving the situation, make sure you keep up the momentum. Take positive, action steps to make sure you overcome the issue and stop it becoming a problem again in the future. 

Want to chat with me? I'm always on hand for some friendly (free) advice. I've been helping families with succession planning for nearly 15 years so there's isn't anything I haven't seen. Call/text me on 07590 830 001 or email me - [email protected]


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