In a family-owned automobile business, the dealership and general business dynamics often become the center of family interaction. As the auto business grows, each family member’s lives also grow, due to changes in personal interests, maturity, and relationships (marriage/kids). Amongst the change, the one thing that remains a common thread is the business.

In every family setting, even the most intimate, business talk invades conversations because it is something all parties can relate to. As a result, “family time” and “business time” become intermingled, and before you know it, everything is about the dealership(s). Issues and challenges that are present in the workplace bleed into family conversations, changing the feeling from casual and relaxed to stressful and anxious, making it very hard for family members to smile through. What starts as a family gathering can easily turn into a boardroom debate, causing family members to limit the amount of time they want to spend with one another.

Sadly, the same can be seen in the workplace. A normal business discussion can quickly become influenced by family dynamics, impacting the ability to make collaborative business decisions.

Why do these incidents occur in family businesses?

These incidents occur because there is a blurred line between relationships. In non-family business settings, it is rare to have conversations with co-workers or managers about home, and rarer still to talk about challenges that are taking place at home. Some believe that the key to solving these challenges is to separate yourself emotionally from family while at work, and from work when at home.


How do we work towards the healthy separation of family and business, without destroying either?

The hardest part of separating family and business is walking the fine line between not wanting to offend someone, while also trying to ensure you protect your position as a family member employee within the business. Working towards a healthy separation involves clear and consistent communication of expectations and reasonable reactions. An example that comes to mind is when the family is together on vacation or for a holiday, and the conversation turns to ‘shop talk.’ Without having agreed upon expectations, the conversation will continue and potentially disrupt what was otherwise a fun family gathering.

Establish a framework with the family where everyone agrees that shoptalk is to be left at the dealership. Establish guidelines within the workplace that limit the amount of family discussion that takes place. Set clear and reasonable expectations that will be the outcome of “breaking” these agreed upon frameworks and policies. Something as simple and fun as creating a “money jar” and every time someone brings up conversation that is not situation appropriate, they have to put money in the jar. Or, have a “work list” available during family gatherings, so if an idea or task comes to mind, it is added to the list versus interrupting casual family time.

Committing to family-business equilibrium is a positive first step, but finding that equilibrium can be like walking a tight-rope. It is a very fine line, and it is rare to find complete balance. You may feel balanced for a second, but then you are fighting the pull from either the family or business side. Sometimes it may feel impossible, but as long as you care and you engage both sides, you are connected to the rope and are actively staying near equilibrium.

Also critical to equilibrium is that outside managers and leaders understand the balancing game that family member employees are constantly working to maintain. Simply put, if the family member employee doesn’t have time to nurture family relationships, then the business will ultimately be affected by disgruntled family attitudes; and, if the family member employee doesn’t dedicate a strong work ethic towards the business, the family member employee will be faced with negative attitudes from the business.

Who is responsible and accountable?

The simple answer here is: everyone. However, there needs to be a tone from the top, coming from leadership that is not only communicated, but shown. Each family member must commit to keeping the others honest, and all must work towards change in both the home and office environment. It would be silly to think that conversations will not cross the line from time to time – that is normal – but what we are working towards is a balance, so the family can be family and business can be business.

All those who have a vested interest in the family business have a vested interest in understanding and working towards family business equilibrium. Finding this equilibrium will help not only diffuse any potential family turf wars, but will help family in the business enjoy being with the family when not at the office


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