Should you include the extended family/spouses in family business issues?

November 12, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

In my experience as a family business consultant, and from what I have read and heard from other professionals, the family business is indeed a member of the family. We relate to it as an organism that brings us joy, sadness, worry, and pride. It goes through its good periods and its difficult periods. We take care of it and nurture it as we might nurture a child. We depend on it as we might depend on another human being. The business can have its own personality as defined by the brand, its values and its culture.

So on one level, the question above is a silly one — by definition, if one is a family member, then one is involved in and impacted by every other family member, including the family member known as the family business. Families are like a group of people holding onto a rope. If one family member pulls on that rope, all the other members feel it. When something happens to a family member, good or bad, all the other family members participate in the sadness or the joy of it. The intensity of the impact on each of the other family members is determined by the level of their interaction with or dependency on the family member in question. So it is with the family business.

I am not suggesting that all family members participate in making decisions about the family business. But I am suggesting that denying the reality that all family members have feelings about the family business and/or not allowing them to have a voice about those feelings is asking for trouble. One needs to be aware of the influences family members have on each other. When you shut down the voice of a family member, you are marginalizing him or her. He or she will resent that.  And that resentment will surface in ways that are least expected and can be difficult if not impossible to control.

An alternative to decision making is validating the reality that all family members are attached one way or another to the family member (in this case, the family business) by asking and/or listening to their thoughts or feelings. You would be surprised by how much people appreciate boundaries and can understand the difference between having authority and just being listened to.