Holidays and the Family Business
As we head further into the holiday season, many of us are preparing for family functions with the full spectrum of emotions running from eager anticipation to dread. Holidays can be particularly challenging for the family that shares an enterprise, because:
- It can be difficult to socialize without talking shop
- Tensions at the office may find their way into holiday celebrations
However, holiday gatherings also offer an opportunity to the family who shares a business to celebrate their connections, strengths and commitment to their essential continuing, and complex, relationships.
A hallmark of family enterprise is that, on a fundamental level, the continuing relationships of the family members matter greatly. Beyond blood, these relationships are rooted in shared history, tradition and enterprise. They are life-long and uniquely permanent relationships. Even when family members try to escape each other due to unresolved conflict and vow never to communicate again, the structural family bond still exists. Often they will continue to see each other at weddings, funerals and reunions, and be unable to sever all connection in their shared family enterprise.
Continuing family relationships add a dimension to conflict that is in stark contrast with traditional civil business disputes between non-family members. In those instances, combatants are concerned about the conflict itself and relationship issues do not matter nearly as much, since the parties can part ways relatively easily.
The continuing relationship factor poses both a challenge and an opportunity in managing conflict. The benefit is that family members are often able to leverage the importance of being family to better manage conflict. They may be more willing to compromise or to go the extra mile for a family member than they would for non-family.
However, being family can also be a complicating factor in managing conflict, because in addition to handling the substantive issues of conflict at hand, the individuals are trying to negotiate how they will be family together during and after the conflict.
Holiday gatherings need not be a minefield of possible explosions: they offer an opportunity to set new patterns and celebrate family strengths. To this end, we offer some holiday survival tips that enterprising families might benefit from:
1. Whether you’re gathering for church, a small brunch or a formal dinner, build consensus through email and conversations ahead of time that your gathering will be a “work-free zone”.
2. If your family gathering must also be a time for a family business meeting, carve out a specific structured time for that meeting – keeping it separate from the family event so that family can celebrate family alone.
3. Build memories together by organizing one or two structured, but relatively non-competitive, activities that include all generations and offer a learning experience about the family and perhaps what they’ve built together. Large families might design and post a family tree to show how everyone is related and to explore family history. These charts can be sources of fascinating conversation as many family tree programs allow for detailed information and photos of each family member.
4. If you’re having a seated meal, mix up the usual constellations by separating those who work closely together, those who already know each other well and those who have known conflicts. Use this as an opportunity to break down factions and walls. When family members know each other well, trust is increased, which builds the family factor.
5. If your family really struggles to contain tension or conflict, it may be best to avoid the typical gathering in favor of an outing that provides both structure and distraction, like a First Night, a performance, or a sporting event. This provides shared experience, but in a less intense and reactive environment.
Many of us approach the holidays with a Norman Rockwell image of tranquil feasting and laughter around a perfectly-set table. However, in real life, it can be useful to let go of these fictional images and find the ways in which one’s own family can best showcase their love, commitment, humor and connections as they celebrate their continuing relationships.