Turkey Talk: Discussing Family Business Issues at Holiday Get-Togethers

How to handle family business conflicts, decisions, and discussions around the holiday dinner table

Byline: Blair Trippe

Estimated read time: ~2-3 minutes

We’ve all seen the pictures—a happy family gathered around the dining table as dad carves the perfectly cooked turkey while the children play and share their toys in an impeccable home. These television and movie scenes depict families enjoying the holidays filled with laughter and joy.

But for many of us, especially for some working in a family business, these images are as elusive as that winning lottery ticket. Not only are our families not paragons of perfection, but some of us have begun to dread the thought of these annual holiday get-togethers. As hard as we try to put on a happy face, the all-too-familiar family dynamics play out and we emerge exhausted, anxious and exasperated.

When families work together or share ownership of significant assets, it’s hard to prevent business issues from leaking into family events. The comfort of the family get-together can often yield a false sense of security for discussing issues more appropriately left at the office.

This can be especially frustrating for those not in the business or excluded from shared ownership, as they may either feel excluded from the conversation or compelled to opine with less than adequate information and perspective.

Aging parents add an additional complication for Gen Xers or Millennials. Signs of aging may appear as physical limitations or the inability to focus and retain information. Or, these signs may be subtler and manifested by changes in risk tolerance, frugality, decisiveness and other issues of personality or changing values. Whether or not this elder is an active senior leader of the family business, or the patriarch/matriarch of the family, families benefit from a process and conversations that prepares them for these changes.

Before confronting these situations, recognize that family businesses have conflict embedded in their very structure and your situation is not atypical. It’s also important to remember that families ─ no matter how unusual you may think yours is ─ are in it together. Don’t let the holidays pass without discussing your concerns in a constructive way with other family members. You may be surprised that some have similar feelings, enabling you to make some headway with a difficult family business leader.

It may be that there is no crisis and no imminent decisions to make. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t come up with a plan for how you and your family discuss the family business.

Remember that failing to plan is planning to fail. So, try to take some time with your family to consider where you are and what short-term and long-term needs you see going forward. How can personal and business responsibilities be shared? How can new roles be defined? How can changes or transitions be considered? How should decisions be made?

There are no right or wrong answers here━just questions that should be explored. Spending a few hours now can save many days, weeks, or months of upset later. If you know group conversations don’t go well in your family, consider hiring a family business consultant who specializes in adult family communication and conflict management. Having a neutral, third party that is knowledgeable in family business and family dynamics to guide the conversation, manage the complexity inherent in a family business, and make sure everyone’s voice is heard can be indispensable.

You don’t have to wait until the New Year to resolve to talk to your family members, especially when families find themselves in complex situations. Family relationships are too important to risk. Don’t wait for a crisis. Talk turkey now.