Why Can't Family Life Be More Like a Business Lunch?

By Kenneth Kaye


One of my clients recently commented that almost a year had passed since she last saw her brother or father anywhere other than at the office. "We get along well at the company," she said, "but I think there's a tacit mutual agreement that we can't socialize much together because office problems will get in the way."

I frequently hear similar comments from other family business members, who wonder whether their lack of togetherness outside the business is normal or bad. They may overestimate the amount of time nonbusiness families spend together.

Whether it's bad varies from case to case. Unresolved issues from the office can sour the mutual affection, harmony, and respect in the family. By the same token, family tensions at home can upset the delicate balance of business roles and relationships.

Whether business is imposing on the family, or vice versa, the solution, I say, is the same: Let those business roles go ahead and take over family life!

Whatever our occupation, we usually behave better with the people at work than we do with those we love. One reason "we always hurt the one we love" is that we take them for granted, as they do us. (The other principal reason is that in the bosom of the family, rejection, rivalry, and frustration are intrinsic to human development from birth to adulthood.) The less we care about business associates and the more we realize we don't own them, the more we know we have to make an effort to maintain good communication, trust, and coordinated goals.

But, you might object, working together makes it harder to act like a "normal" family. Hooray! That means it's harder to take one another for granted, harder to be petty, harder to be childish and churlish, and harder to gang up. In the context of a shared enterprise, we are a little less likely to fall back on the worst ways we are capable of treating our loved ones. Why shouldn't we take our best behavior home from the office with us?

Family business has been the normal state of affairs in the human species since Australopithecus Limited. Relatively few families work together in industrialized Western countries today, but that is an anomaly that runs counter to the pattern of human history.

The family as an economic unit, not just as a child-rearing unit, is the form of social organization within which human behavior and the human mind evolved over a couple of million years. All our basic institutions (community, religion, mythology, trade, warfare, government, technology) evolved around the family — in a way, around the family business. So there is nothing unusual, in the broad scheme of human life, about families who work together. When parents and adult children go off to separate jobs, that is unusual.

So why is it so difficult today for many family members to work together? Blame it, in part, on society: the disintegration of the nuclear family, geographic distance, the demands and speed of modern life, and our obsession with self and individualism.

The antidote: let our work lives pervade our social lives as a family. Why fight it? Not only is it easier to be sensitive to one another's feelings in a work setting than in a take-them-for-granted mode, but it may also prove therapeutic for the family. People don't have to work out all their childhood and/or marital issues before they can work together productively and maturely. In fact, the opportunity to work together in a shared enterprise can be the occasion for rewriting old scripts such as "the best defense is a good offense," and for playing out new, adult ones such as "how can I help you?"

A few words of caution: Not everyone in the extended family shares the same experience and interest in what's going on at the office. Be sensitive to them, and to nonparticipating family members who have an indirect if not a direct stake in the company performance. They may be reluctant to voice their concerns, yet they may resent the bonds that unite the "in" group in the family business.

The solution is not to avoid social contact, but to treat everyone in the family as we would treat clients at a business lunch. We'd talk about subjects of mutual interest, and we'd listen attentively.

I am not suggesting we forsake intimacy for distance and reserve. We can have intimacy and communion without sacrificing gentility and careful communication. What a world this would be if we all treated each other as we do our most valued clients, employees, employers, customers, and suppliers!


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February 1990

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