Family relations

In-laws are best kept out of the family's business. Right? Guess again.

By Tom Hubler

In-laws bear the brunt of countless jokes aimed at their alleged incompetence or tendency to interfere. Family business spouses, though, can often help, instead of hinder, the family business.

Because they were raised in a different family, spouses don't tend to get caught up in the emotional eccentricities most families develop. In-laws, of course, are the products of their own family schtick, but that doesn't seem to detract from their ability to spot emotional undercurrents more objectively than members of the family they married into.

It's not unusual for family business members to resist involvement of the spouses initially. They fear that in-laws will unnecessarily complicate the issues at hand and cause a furthur split. On the contrary, my experience has shown that when spouses do become involved family business problems are solved more quickly and efficiently.

Therefore one of my ground rules in working with family-owned businesses is that in-laws must be allowed to attend and participate in selected family business planning meetings. I'm not talking about inviting them to help run the business, but allowing them to sit in on discussions focused on the overlap between family and business.

The presence of spouses usually inspires the family members to be on better behavior; they are not so quick to act disrespectfully toward one another. Also, spouses are often the only people who, during heated arguments, can tap their husband or wife gently on the shoulder and say, "Honey, I don't think you are really hearing what your brother is saying.

Excluding in-laws outside the business can be downright dangerous. There is nothing worse than second-hand information, especially when it comes from someone emotionally involved in a conflict. When a family member comes home from the office and complains to her husband about what went on at the compensation meeting that day, her husband, reacting to a one-sided and somewhat distorted report of the event, will of course take his wife's side and fan the flame. He is likely to say, "My god, you let your brother get away with that?" Next day at the office, at his proddings, she will be doubly divisive.

The husband understandably takes his wife's side, because he loves her. But the belligerent advice he is bound to give her, in response to her distorted account, only ends up entrenching the entire family in resentment.

One widowed matriarch did not involve her new husband, Robert, in tense family business meetings with her two sons. She would come home from the office complaining bitterly about how her younger son, Dan, was trying to push out his older brother, Steve. From the start the new step-father developed a negative attitude and strained relationship with Dan.

When Robert finally sat down face-to-face with his new family in a formal meeting, he was able to assume an independent opinion, based on his own observations. Robert immediately recognized that Dan was not trying to grab power, he just wanted to be recognized by his mother for his contributions, and to be compensated more equitably.

Robert had a calming influence on his new wife, which enabled the entire family to sit down and redefine their jobs and devise a pay scheme that everyone agreed was fair.

Yes, spouses can also complicate family business discussions with their own issues and emotional hot-buttons. Sometimes, for instance, spouses don't get along with each other, and create new problems. That's all the more reason to involve them. After all, avoiding their feelings and concerns does not make them disappear.

For instance, two brothers who worked together used to be very close, as were their spouses — until one brother divorced. After he remarried, his new wife was seen as the "other" woman who had broken up the first marriage, even though the couple hadn't even met until a year after the divorce.

It got to the point where no one was talking to each other. Once everyone gathered in the same room, the new wife mentioned her sadness at the disintegration of the brothers' formerly close relationship. This brought out tears and nods from everyone, which began to unravel everyones' resentments.

Or take the case of Betsy, the wife of a diabetic manager in a family business that lacked a succession plan. She worried for years about what would happen to her and her children, if anything happened to her husband. Her concern about their financial future created much unnecessary stress on her marriage and on her relationship with his family.

Her husband was an intensely silent and uncommunicative type who would offer only cryptic assurances that the matter would be taken care of. Not able to confront his mortality, though, he never "found time" to mention to his father and brothers in the business the impact his death would have on his family if no formal succession plan were put in place.

Without a forum in which to raise her concerns, Betsy's anxiety reached a critical point. When she finally attended a family business meeting, she was able to express the concerns her husband had never raised on her behalf directly. Once they realized her worries, the family was able to consider a succession plan that everyone was comfortable with.

Including spouses requires an investment of time and energy. But one way or another their concerns will surface. It's always a case of pay me now or pay me later. If it's later, you will usually wind up paying with interest, which will generally compound at the same rate at which family disharmony grows.

When spouses do participate, they always bring the positive benefit of their unique perspective. In the event they also bring issues or concerns to the meetings, it's still more efficient to deal with them directly and up front. Solving family business issues requires the cooperation and positive involvement of everyone affected, and spouses are a valuable source of good will for family-owned business problem solving.

Tom Hubler is founder of Hubler Family Business Consultants, and the Center for the Empowerment of Family Business, both in Minneapolis.

Making room for in-laws

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