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Four ways to navigate the politics of running a family business

Family businesses offer a unique opportunity to work with your loved ones toward a common goal. However, they can also be full of challenges.

Four ways to navigate the politics of running a family business
[Tyler Olson /AdobeStock]

Power and control are constants in business. Whether you’re a startup or a Fortune 500 company, there is always a steady dose of jockeying for position and exerting authority.

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When you’re in a family business, you naturally ramp up the emotional element of this dynamic. Like it or not, family dynamics will inevitably impact everything from day-to-day decision-making to long-term succession planning.

Here are a few tips I’ve discovered while working in our family business to help you navigate the politics of working alongside family members:

1. SET CLEAR BOUNDARIES 

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Ever since the mass migration to remote work, everyone has been talking about boundaries. The need to keep work and personal life separate when you work from home is very real. When it comes to a family business, however, your professional and personal lives are constantly intertwined, regardless of where you work.

That’s why setting boundaries has been a thing for family businesses long before a pandemic took it mainstream. When you work with loved ones, you have to make an effort to keep the work stuff at work and on work time. In addition, you can’t talk family stuff during business hours or you’ll never get anything done.

2. ADDRESS THE NEPOTISTIC STUFF 

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If you’re in a family business, it isn’t a secret that your family is at the heart of the operation. This makes it easy for nepotism to sneak into the picture in two different ways.

First, you may want to hire a family member to “do them a favor,” regardless of their actual skill set or experience. Second, you may feel the inverse problem of pressuring family members to participate in the family business, regardless of their interests.

In either case, it’s important to actively identify and work against this influence. Always hire family members and others based on objective, meritocratic criteria.

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3. DEFINE ROLES AND EXPECTATIONS

You should never have a family member on staff if they don’t have a clear, defined purpose in the building. Setting clear expectations provides you with a benchmark to gauge success and failure against. Make sure to go beyond verbal conversations, too. Write everything down as a formal contract if you can.

This is important with any employee if you want to make wise, emotion-free decisions regarding their performance. With a family member, in particular, it’s essential.

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4. EXERCISE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

Finally, remember two things: Emotions should never be front and center in the workplace, and in a family business, there are going to be emotions involved, whether you like it or not. This dichotomy requires a unique approach when working with loved ones.

On the one hand, do your best to adopt strict emotional disciplinary standards for yourself. Practice filtering what you say before you say it, and always check your motives when making family-related business decisions.

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On the other hand, don’t assume your family members will be able to apply EQ properly. Instead, hone your emotional intelligence skills so you can navigate interactions with family members with success.

THRIVING WITHIN A FAMILY BUSINESS 

Family businesses offer a unique opportunity to work with your loved ones toward a common goal. However, they can also be full of challenges.

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It’s wise to be proactive regarding these family-business-based threats. Create boundaries, set expectations, work against nepotism, and use the suggestions on this list to ensure that your workplace efforts help both you and your family survive and thrive in the future.


Jason is a healthcare executive specializing in technology and risk management focusing on the senior housing and long-term care industry.

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