Family Business

How to tame sibling rivalries in the workplace

October 13, 2012 

“Can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ’em.” This is a humorous cliché used to refer to a spouse in a difficult marriage. Perhaps it is also frequently said when describing the feelings of working alongside your siblings in a family business.

When it comes to family businesses, much of the “buzz” is about succession: transferring the leadership and ownership of the business to the next generation. However, there is actually inherently much more time spent with siblings working together. So while passing a baton is certainly difficult, imagine the difficulty of two people running an entire race as a three legged-race. Not to mention three or four people!

Certainly some of the issue emanates from simple sibling rivalry. Sibling rivalry can range from nonexistent to such an extreme that it requires outside counseling. At its core, sibling rivalry is the process children go through to try to discover and define who they are as an individual person, coupled with the competition for love, affection and acceptance of the parents. Linda Silber Ph.D. of Silber Psychological Services in the Triangle looks at it this way: “Sibling rivalry is essential to personal development. It is the place where people first learn to share, take turns, negotiate and compromise.”

So now let’s place these siblings in a business environment. The stakes have become higher, and the measuring stick has become much more clearly defined. As a simple family member, it is fairly easy to achieve the goal of becoming an independent person with a healthy self-esteem, given a decent environment, and proper love and guidance from parents. However, once placed into the world of profit and loss, the metrics for success become much more quantifiable and clear. How much work can you get done in a day? Do you have ideas that can make or save money? Can you implement them? Can you successfully manage a group of people? Now any ongoing sibling rivalry remnants get mixed in with some real-world competition.

Work together

The top recommendation for siblings who are in business together is to not work in the same functional area. The classic case study for this is the massive fallout between the two sons of the billion-dollar Reliance Industries, who both had undergraduate technical degrees and MBAs from top 5 business schools. The extent of their disagreements was such that the business had to be divided in half.

Other methods include having siblings not report to a parent. This divorces the emotional aspect of the business relationship. However, it also requires a strong and empowered manager to effectively manage the owner’s children.

One family business touts their success for working together as siblings as not living in the same town, although the nature of their business drove this to occur. (They didn’t all move out of town just so they could get along better.)

However, at some point siblings need to shed the attitude that there are external reasons creating disagreements, come to the realization that combating each other will only damage the business and the relationship, and make the decision that they want to find ways to successfully work together, whether for personal or financial reasons.

Clear your air

Once this is under your belt, the first step is to clear your air of any past issues. Perhaps this is done by trying to patch things up. But it may simply require being an adult, realizing the world is not perfect – that is, agree to disagree. This is why I say “your” air and not “the” air – it may require you to unilaterally decide to put the issue in the past. And leave it there.

The next and most fundamental step is to define roles and responsibilities. This is my side of the sandbox, and that is your side of the sandbox. And when it comes to items in the middle of the sandbox, we both acknowledge that we will both need to get together to decide how to handle.

Finally, communication is critical. Sometimes it is uncomfortable, but it must be scheduled and the real topics must get on the table. Postponing communication is simply creating a buildup for an explosion.

In two weeks: How to choose the leader among siblings.

Henry Hutcheson is a nationally recognized family business speaker, author and consultant in Raleigh. He can be reached at

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