How to Work With Family, and Still Like Each Other
Running a business is no piece of cake, let alone working with family, which adds an additional layer of complexity. While the boundaries between professional and personal lives are often blurred, power struggles and who gets the final say aren’t uncommon, which can impact decision-making.
To avoid such conflicts, having a shared purpose, vision, value system and open communication can reinforce family business performance, especially in today’s volatile business environment. Here are five ways to mitigate potential blow-ups and forge a harmonious professional relationship with family members.
Whether it’s working with family or even with strangers, appreciation is the key to success. For husband-and-wife team, Yeo Kai Seng and Ang Ziyi, learning to appreciate one another was fundamental to starting their restaurant Chez Kai. “Running a business is not much different than raising a child. Finances, hardships, commitment, dedication, time, effort and so much more go into growing it. We have to appreciate what we have, who is willing to work with us to make things easier along the way.”
Lena Chan and Eric Chan, sibling owners of award-winning restaurant and patisserie Mad About Sucre, also echo that sentiment and appreciate their differences, as they each bring something to the table. “When the going gets tough, always remember why you started the journey and keep the end goal in mind.”
Keep Professional and Personal Separate
When working with family, it is inevitable that personal and professional issues get entangled. The owners of Chez Kai agree that the best way to resolve such issues is to either let things go, or address them at the end of the day. “A lot of times when people fight, it is because emotions are unstable. The customers at hand are always our priority, so we push the emotions aside first, finish our work and once we sit down, we are more level-headed to discuss our issues without the anger or pride.”
When emotions run high, give each other a breather or some space to cool down as sometimes we often hurt the ones we love. Always conduct yourself in a professional manner; do not air your dirty linen in public, force employees to pick sides, or let any personal family drama cause you to neglect your professional responsibilities. During family time, set boundaries. Don’t talk business and cultivate a safe space where communication is open and active listening is present.
Be Respectful and Honest
You don’t need to love each other on the job just because you are related. There also isn’t a need to be sycophantic towards each other or excessively critical. Kelly Keak, managing director of MTM Skincare, loves working with her mom because she has so many valuable lessons and wisdom to impart. Her passion for the business and care for every person is what makes Keak strive to be a better leader and a better person. Keak also works with her dad and while her parents were more traditional in their business strategies, they have trust in her ability to take the company to new heights.
At Mad About Sucre, once each individual’s role boundaries are defined, everyone respects these boundaries. This respect is an essential step to overcoming challenges. “Having come from different industries and having corporate experiences and leadership positions in various fields prior to establishing Mad About Sucre enabled us to be respectful of boundaries, diversities and various opinions,” said Lena Chan.
Even if you are working with family, do not assume that they will excuse your lack of proficiency. Ascertain that you are equipped with the right knowledge, skills and abilities to perform at a high level. If not, find a mentor, seek training or reconsider your responsibilities to ensure they match your capabilities. Nothing destroys trust faster than incompetence. And trust is the foundation for all successful businesses. When Keak first started running the family business, she wasn’t well-versed in the beauty skincare industry. She found it pressurising, knowing that the company’s survival depended on the brand becoming a success. Keak overcame that by familiarising herself with the products, staff, operations and everything she could learn about the industry. “I was young but determined, and I find that having grit and competence are the main reasons why the family business is going stronger than ever,” she said.
The secret to overcoming faulty communication is to speak more intentionally. Intentional communication clarifies boundaries and establishes expectations for workplace dynamics. First, clarify every individual’s specific targets. Ensure that these are specific, measurable and achievable. In addition, break down all the daily work processes clearly. These could include the process for making decisions, including who makes what kind of decisions and how these are made. Make sure everyone is constantly updated. Never deliberately leave someone out of the communication loop because of personal ego.
Keak adds that good communication is about listening too: “You will never be perfect in every single aspect of the business. So if someone in your family gives you advice, try to listen to their suggestion before dismissing it!” Similarly, Eric Chan cites being open and listening does help with communication. “Most of our disagreements centre around the menu. There was one time back in 2019 when Lena wanted to launch a pastry with a concoction of lychee, lemon, and wasabi, and the rest of us were in disagreement due to the mismatch of flavours on paper. Lena then convinced us to try out the test bake with an open mind, and well, we listened… and ended up loving it! This pastry then went on to become one of our biggest hits ever.”