Rochelle Clarke Contributor
I write about Continuity for Family Businesses & Entrepreneurs
Comedian George Burns once stated, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family... in another city.” True enough, but what are you supposed to do when that loving family moves into your city— or worse, the cubicle right next to yours? The potential for conflict to disrupt an otherwise good relationship, prevents many from considering making the step.
As a consultant who specializes in family business, I’ve seen relatives and friends get along very well in the workplace. I’ve also seen conflict within family relationships disrupt a business’ operations in such a major way that it brings a company to its knees.
For the latter, communication is usually to blame. Sometimes, it’s over-communication: familiarity can break down healthy boundaries and result in disagreements and tension. Other times, it’s under-communication: they love each other too much or just find it difficult to say what needs to be said.
The key to overcoming these communication woes isn’t just to talk more but to talk more intentionally about the right things. Intentional communication defines relationships, clarifies boundaries, and establishes expectations for how the work dynamic should look.
From my experience, I’ve found these 6 simple tips to be vital to opening those lines of communication and creating a place where friends and families can do their best work together:
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1. Get clear on your values.
Which of these is more important: making decisions that preserve the relationship; or accomplishing the organization’s objectives? The correct answer depends on what was agreed by the parties involved. Disagreements can occur when values between the relevant parties are not aligned.
Values are the North Star and guiding light of most decisions. Once aligned, they ensure behavioral consistency from members of the group. Identify your values at the beginning of the work relationship and clearly communicate them to others in the business.
As the business expands, assess the fit of potential hires or business partners with the business’ established values to minimize potential conflict. Some of the most powerful work that we do revolves around defining values and aligning future generations in a family business around the family’s values. However, values could also be shared in other ways.
2. Anticipate and plan for conflict
Some organizations recommend that employers develop a specific Employment of Relatives policy. Why? Because when disagreements happen between friends and family, everyone involved needs a clear and transparent set of guidelines to follow. Without this type of governance, conflicts can devolve into a proverbial boxing match.
Regardless of which side “wins,” the relationship, in most cases, loses. When it comes to clarifying the working relationship between those who also share a close personal bond, proactive steps should be taken to preserve the relationship.
Written policies or procedures, particularly those that spell out how conflict should be managed and who decides in the case of a deadlock, can be discussed and documented when feelings are still positive. The key with any governance document is to ensure that it captures the essence of the family or those to whom it would apply in order to increase its likelihood of use.
3. Define the relationship
Speaking of relationships, people work best when they can relate to each other authentically. This could sometimes spell disaster for family members or friends who work together. If Cousin Bob only relates to Cousin Mary by way of their family relationship instead of the fact that she is his direct supervisor in the workplace, conflict can inevitably arise.
Don’t leave the relationship undefined. Particularly in the work context, roles and responsibilities need to be clearly defined. There will be times when employees in a business need to ‘pitch in’ and ‘help out’ to ensure that the business’ objectives are met but this should be the exception instead of the rule.
4. Hold each other accountable
With responsibility comes accountability. One of the hardest things for people who share a close personal relationship to do at work, is to hold each other accountable. For fear of ruining the relationship, some may avoid or delay having the conversations - particularly those about poor performance - that are important for the smooth running of the business.
Don’t be afraid to hold each other accountable. While avoiding the conversation may seem like the loving choice, it can ultimately result in a build up of feelings of resentment. If left unchecked, festering resentment could do more harm to the relationship than addressing the issue.
5. Know your style and develop an approach
Disagreements at work are inevitable. However, tension in the workplace could be a good thing if it is managed well. Among other benefits, tension could lead to elevated levels of performance and creativity in the work environment.
In workplaces where employees say that they agree on everything, there can be a high likelihood of unvoiced disagreement and discontent bubbling beneath the surface for many reasons. This kind of subterranean tension almost always leads to feelings of contempt and disengagement among employees.
The best thing you can do is to develop a personal approach for voicing disagreement and navigating conflict well. Guidance for overcoming communication barriers could come from seasoned coaches and advisors who are familiar with the work dynamic.
6. Exit gracefully
Not every plan will go as intended. Things can get especially complicated when, despite genuine attempts at remedy, the working relationship with a friend or family member clearly isn’t working. For the sake of the parties involved and others who may be affected, it may seem as though the best course would be to end the working relationship.
In many cases, however, there was a good personal relationship that existed before the work relationship. Despite the subsequent conflict, the parties may still want to preserve that relationship or reserve the possibility of reconciliation once emotions have settled.
If there is an agreement in place (see tip #1), then, the steps to execute a parting of ways may have already been defined. In other situations, however, the parties could often benefit from the independent, perspective of a professional like a family business advisor or consultant to manage the family dynamic with the goal of preserving the relationship before escalating to legal channels.
Just imagine extending the positive and fulfilling relationship that you already share with a family member or friend into the work domain. Working side my side, you could fulfill a common purpose and see a shared dream come to life.
But this expanded relationship may also come with a special set of challenges. Take these 6 tips to heart and work to establish healthy lines of communication and you might just experience more of the upside that comes from working with loved ones.
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