When Siblings Drive Us to Distraction

Small Business

In her family business newsletter, Daughters in Charge, Amy Katz, Ph.D., a family business consultant, recently published a letter from a daughter in this predicament.

Dear Amy,

I am really struggling with my sister. She’s two years older than I am and thinks that because she has worked in our business longer than I have (I went to college and she did not), I should report to her. I am not comfortable with this at all. What are your thoughts about this?


Dear Elizabeth,

Through my coaching practice and podcasts, I’ve heard from several daughters about situations like yours. Building a sibling team is not easy, but with some time, thought, and good intentions, I think it’s not only possible, but also very gratifying and fun.

Here are some of my thoughts and suggestions I’ve developed over the past few years. I hope they’re helpful to you.

  1. They’ve changed, and you’ve changed. Siblings who work together after a period of separation (college, different jobs, etc.) may find that they need to become reacquainted with each other. In fact, it’s probably important that you develop the mindset that working with your brother or sister will require you to step back and appreciate their unique talents and skills. Just as you have learned from your experiences, so have they. Take the time to explore who they are as adults.
  2. Respect their value to the business. You may have grown up with a younger brother who teased you all the time or drove you crazy, but he may be a talented engineer who makes a valuable contribution to the business. He may still tease you, but don’t deny his ability to take on a project, manage a team, or create a great product design. Hopefully, he’ll show you the same courtesy: and respect.
  3. Old conflicts will resurface. Expect them to. Our relationships with our siblings often require “rewiring” when we work with them. If you’ve felt competitive with your sister, you’ll feel competitive at work. Sometimes working in different parts of the business can help defuse old conflicts; having distinct roles can help as well. Be patient with yourself if you find yourself overreacting at work. Sibling relationships often trigger feelings from long ago that can be difficult to manage. On the other hand, you may find that a sibling can be a great source of support.
  4. New conflicts will emerge. Now that you are adults, it’s very likely that your siblings have spouses and in-laws who may want to work in the business. Or you and a sibling may find that you’re both in conflict with a parent who is unwilling to face the need for succession planning. If the business is a family enterprise, you may want to suggest forming a family council, where each person can find his/her place, and difficult conflicts among family members can be addressed, and hopefully, resolved.
  5. Your teamwork will have a positive and important impact on business results. Sibling teams that work well can be a lot of fun and a source of support for everyone. Employees will appreciate your camaraderie and feel less concerned about business transitions. Some families engage a non-family CEO to help siblings navigate their relationships. Hiring an outsider is expensive, but overall, it may be worth it for the business and for your family.
  6. Form positive relationships with your nieces and nephews. Your siblings’ children may be in kindergarten now, but they will grow up, and they may end up working for you! Or you may work for them! By working in the business, you’ll serve as a wonderful example to them of how a woman can be a strong and effective leader, as well as a generous and thoughtful aunt. Of course, even if they don’t join the business, your connection with them will setting the stage for positive relationships that will undoubtedly affect the business over time.
  7. Prepare for succession planning. You and your siblings will likely become owners at some point. It’s an important role for each and all of you. You’ll make decisions together, enjoy the benefits of business success, and address business concerns as they arise. Practice listening to your siblings now. Try not to interrupt. Respect their points of view. The way you relate to each other now will have a significant impact on all of you going forward

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