Family Business Survival Guide: How to Maintain Healthy Relationships In a Family Business

I grew up in a now 3rd generation family business and married into one on its way to generation 5. While most don’t make it past the 2nd generation, no other organization in the world is more prominent than family businesses—and they are on the rise. According to the US Bureau of the Census, about 90% of businesses are family owned or controlled, and they account for 78% of all new jobs. Coupled with this steady resurgence, businesses in today’s times are built on relationships more than ever. This seems to explain why the complicated dynamics of family business have been showing up on my therapy couch more than ever, and an increasingly hot topic nationwide.

What are some tips for those involved in a family business, directly or indirectly? How can families maintain their family bond amidst the often tricky dynamics of running a business? How can family members best deal with emotions that can arise when members feel a threat to their power and place in the family, or their self esteem? There’s an entire field dedicated to guiding families and their family firms. For the scope of this blog, here are 4 proactive ideas to consider gleaned from my experience in organizational development, family counseling, and more personally, from across the kitchen table.


Family businesses are best viewed by the systems in which they operate. While families make up their own system—as do marriages, businesses, and bodies of governance—family businesses are typically comprised of multiple and overlapping systems. So the first step in keeping the relationships healthy within the family, and the family business, is to establish clear boundaries between work and family. This requires more deliberate effort than most realize. It’s not typically an organic separation.

We each tend to have a functional and emotional role in the family, whether based on birth order, personality, or the communication/emotional system that governs the family. Family members working in the business also have a task and emotional role, but not necessarily the same as in the family. Family roles must not be confused with work roles.  If they are, then festering sibling issues can land smack onto the boardroom table, day in and day out.

For the founder or current leader of the business, it’s essential to select partners and employ family in positions based on objective criteria, not on birth order or the roles they play in the family. Furthermore, you’re never going to attract top people if the top jobs always go to a family member. Look what happened to Falstaff Brewery, a once thriving family business who always gave the top job to a family member. When it comes to business decisions, they must remain separate from the family.

This difficult but essential distinction, and many other sensitive issues that naturally arise, can make balancing multiple roles quite a challenge for the senior members— who are typically not only boss, but Mom, Dad, Aunt or Uncle. I love the story of a business owner who kept 2 hats in her office, one with BOSS written on it, the other with MOM. Depending on the topic of conversation, she would pick the appropriate hat to visually indicate the type of conversation about to ensue, sometimes switching hats in mid stream.

A final aspect of keeping work and family separate is the concept of encouraging the next generation to follow their passion. Incoming members must really find themselves and achieve success outside of the family business environment. It’s important to have a sense of grit for one’s achievement and to make sure the family business is a fit.  There are trade offs that must be considered and one’s own true path in life must be honored. I’ve seen many join the family business out of obligation or approval seeking, which only grew into bitterness and depression.  The unconditional love within the family, and trust in each person’s ability to choose their path, must be well established to allow each member to make a true choice.


To create clear boundaries and roles, and to create a healthy emotional environment, families that have good communication skills fare best. Many times, long-standing poor family communication, or lack thereof, naturally bleeds into the business as well. Unfortunately, healthy communication inside families is not necessarily the norm, both in quantity and quality. That is, too many families don’t schedule family meetings, engage in active listening, attack the problem not the person, handle conflict with diplomacy, spend one on one time together, and/or seek counseling.  

This tendency for weak communication in a family makes the urgency even greater for family business owners to create a culture that prioritizes building better and more frequent communication. Typically, it’s recommended for family values to form the foundation of the family business culture. If not already in place, healthy communication, and handling conflict with diplomacy, is one family value that should most definitely be added in. See more on communication in my previous blogs Tricky Conversations with Sensitive People and Transforming Anger into Growth in Our Relationships


Fostering healthy communication, aka managing painful and perpetual conflict, prompts many successful family business owners to seek outside family council. When I say successful, I don’t just mean just fiscally. True prosperity means having it all: thriving business; positive, creative work environment; safe and respectful family and non family relationships; an element of soul in the business valuing giving and unity, versus taking and every man for himself.

One of the biggest mistakes made in family businesses is trying to navigate all facets internally. When moving away from the one tier mom and pop shop and into the next generation(s), outside advisors and consultants can add great value with issues related to finance and strategy, roles, communication, emotional dynamics, entry requirements, recruiting the next generation, compensation, succession planning, divorce, and more. It can be hard to let others in, but objectively wise— and can ease up the jealousy and tendency for members to take things personally.


Family businesses have another system that has great influence on all of the others, and that is they are an emotional system. Emotions are not the problem. In fact, emotions can offer a vital and positive contribution to logic when making decisions best for the long term. But only when a person is self aware. The key is to develop a relationship with our emotions that allows them to be the messengers of our inner truth, rather than in charge of our emotional reactions.

Aggressive, reactive individuals have not developed the pause muscle or learned how to turn inward to sit with and understand what they’re really feeling and why. Rather the tendency is to react outwardly to try and fix a painful emotion instantly. We all have emotionally reactive tendencies and these can certainly become triggered in family business dynamics.  All the more reason why investing in greater emotional intelligence, (i.e., greater self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-regulation; empathy with others, listening skills, and emotional diplomacy) should become a top priority, for families and for family business success. True prosperity, especially for a healthy family business, requires working from the inside out.


Hilbert-Davis, Jane and Dyer, W.Gibb, Jr.  (2003), Consulting to Family Business. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

 Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

Some splits between parent and child come from something sudden or dramatic, but most broken ties develop gradually and stem from misunderstandings and less extreme, albeit hurtful, interactions. Let’s talk about what hope there might be if you are estranged from your parent or child. Here's what I recommend…

Holiday Cheer vs. Holiday Fear: How to Go Above the Overwhelm

Holiday Cheer vs. Holiday Fear: How to Go Above the Overwhelm

We are all faced with a myriad of challenging life circumstances, enough to make anyone feel anxious, insecure or overwhelmed. The truth is, we are not here to simply live a life of stillness and stagnation. To taste real satisfaction and freedom, we are here to overcome, grow and transform. So how do we deal best with times of great stress and stay connected to joy and peace along the way?

A Stronger Connection with Dad: Why it Matters and Tips to Make it Happen

A Stronger Connection with Dad: Why it Matters and Tips to Make it Happen

Strengthening our connection with our fathers--directly or indirectly, physically or metaphysically--opens important channels of success and happiness in our lives. From all sides of the family dynamic, read on for some suggestions to consider to help fathers and their children create a stronger connection.  

Raising Teenagers: Staying Connected

Raising Teenagers: Staying Connected

Teens need a healthy attachment more than ever during this trial and error phase of life. The more we stay close and connected to our teens (not to be confused with hovering or controlling), the better we can support them emotionally. Through our attachment, we equip them with a compass as they find their own truth and strength, and decision making power. 

Proactive Parenting

Proactive Parenting

We all love to weigh in when in comes to critiquing others' parenting moves and styles, but ask most moms and dads in the thick of raising young people today, and even the brightest, most confident among us will admit (at least privately) that it's the hardest job on the planet. Parenting is not a black and white business, and is certainly not for sissies.

Hope for Healing the Wound of an Absent Father or Divorce

Why has Kelly Clarkson’s song, Piece by Piece, and her emotional appearance on American Idol, resonated with so many?  To start with, people love real people! Take a song delving into the void of a daddyless daughter who witnessed multiple divorces—and couple that with Kelly breaking down while singing—and you have the hearts of a whole nation open wide. 

Click above to watch the fox2 video 

Click above to watch the fox2 video 

In both or her songs, Piece By Piece and Because Of You, Kelly touches upon a profound challenge many faces: growing up with an absent father and in a home of divorce.  According to the US Department of Census, 43% of US children live without their father physically present. And this does not include the emotionally absent father, which has been shown to have an identical impact.  In addition, 50% of American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Close to half of those will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.

While the statistics reflect a significantly greater prevalence of absent fathers, it’s important to note that 8% of households have children being raised with a physically absent mother (emotional absence being harder to measure). The purpose of this article is not to point the finger at men (or divorced parents). Actually, the message here is not to judge anyone. That never helps. Nonetheless, the truth is, when either of our parents are absent, or when they divorce, this leaves a profound lack. The extensive and disturbing statistics reveal unfortunate consequences due to this lack.  That being said, I am not here to depress but rather inspire hope—because what we do with our lack makes all the difference for our future happiness and relationship success. 

Here are some recommendations to take care of the wounds from parental absence and/or divorce:

Only when we grasp the incredible capacity we have for growing and transforming, healing and forgiving, can we truly make the most of our lives. We create our reality, regardless of what happens to us on the outside.  It’s a radical level of power and responsibility over one’s life, but it works. No matter the trauma we experience, we possess an unshakeable wholeness within. 

We can’t go it alone. Not if we really want to reach our true potential. Assistance from a healing professional is not a sign of weakness.  Quite the opposite, letting someone in for the sake of empowering our highest self speaks volumes about our desire, our willingness to take responsibility for our lives and for our courage to be vulnerable.

When we understand the emotional impact, and behavioral tendencies, from having an absent parent or living in a divorced home, we can start to choose proactively how to respond to the pain we experience and respond with greater self-love, control, and wisdom.  Otherwise, we live reactively, shooting in the dark by behaving unconsciously, not really knowing what hole we are trying to fill. 

For example, most children of an absent parent and/or divorce struggle with two common issues:  Fear of abandonment, and feeling unworthy of love. These deep wounds tend to bleed into relationships in four harmful ways: 

  •     People Pleasing - settling for less out of fear of rejection
  •     Needy for love - a desperate latching on to any attention to cover a fear of being alone
  •     Fixing our partner - maybe we could get the love we need if we can fix his/her problems
  •     Emotionally unavailable - never letting people in, hard to commit, afraid to be vulnerable

By identifying our own behavioral traits, this is a beginning of transforming them.  We cannot change what we cannot see.  We also minimize the risk of repeating the cycle.

We need to have a good relationship with ourselves to be whole. As hard and counterintuitive as it may be, we must restrict the urge to have a romantic partner fill our lack. It’s a paradox. The more we work on being good with us, the greater are our chances of attracting what we are really looking for.  We are people who need people.  But it’s about timing and priority. We must put our relationship with our true self first.  Only then are we truly prepared to attract a soulmate, someone with whom we experience genuine love and belonging—that lasts!   

Be selective with who you date, let in and especially marry.  Realize your worth and guard your inner Light. Stay away from those who show signs of caring only for the self alone, not a family player. Be cautious about taking morsels of attention to assuage your fear of being alone.  Break the chain and select someone who appears to be capable and have balance, who is open to growing and becoming a better person. You are worth it. 

Blame is a heavy first stone on our backs, upon which those larger stones of anger, fear guilt, and shame build. Blaming our parents, and especially blaming ourselves, keeps us stuck and limits our capacity to enjoy the blessings we are meant to receive.  We often cannot see the big picture in life, it can be hard to make sense of our losses and hardships. But those who trust the process of life, and learn to embrace the challenges as opportunities to grow stronger, wiser and more capable of love, tend to rise higher than those who can’t let go and continue to blame. It’s not easy to forgive and be compassionate with ourselves. Yet when we focus on the blessings that we have gained through the pain, and the Light revealed from the darkness, we stop wishing for things to be different and appreciate who we are and all that we are given.  

What Will Be Our Legacy: A Note to Parents
Remember the feeling when the twin towers came down? Or have you ever heard some scary news, or come close to losing, or actually lost, someone to an illness. Perhaps you have feared you would lose a marriage or time with your children?  These times can hit us with a wave of love and perspective, how clearly we see what really matters. Times of crisis can also feel like we've been hit with a frying pan - a wake up call if you will.  Our human nature can easily keep us stuck in physicality, in the worries and day to day life. Many adults fail to realize how in the bigger picture, it's the people and our relationships that matter the most. When it comes to being a parent, especially for fathers, many simply fail to grasp how important their role is and the profound difference they make in their children's lives. On so many levels.

I often hear wisdom from those late in their years wishing they would have been more present with their children when they were younger.  Everyone is doing their best; we all have wounds to heal and obstacles from complex and often painful family dynamics. Most absent fathers (or mothers) were raised in a home with an absent father themselves, or been in some kind of dysfunctional or broken home. But it's never too late to break the cycle. When we awaken the desire, we are wired to grow and do better - especially with help. So rather than waiting for a crisis to teach us what really matters, or when it's late in the game, let’s ask ourselves: “How present am I with my children?” “Am I who I really want to be for my kids.” “Am I taking care of myself, and growing, so I can be the best parent I can be?” “What kind of legacy do I want to leave?”

Tips to Deal with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

Tips to Deal with Difficult Relatives During the Holidays

The holidays can bring the best of times and the worst of times. While many look forward to being with family, it seems everyone has that one relative (at least one) who makes things difficult. We tend to give so much power away to these challenging and sometimes toxic relatives.