Sibling Conflict in Family Business: Five Ways to Work well with your Brother or Sister

In reflecting on 2021, I was drawn to one of the common, yet complex challenges we are often asked about in family business. That is conflict. Particularly, how to manage family conflict, how to deal with family conflict and how to come to workable resolutions. I’d like to explore this a little more with you and give you some tips to help start the working year well.

One aspect of family conflict that is not talked about so much is conflict between siblings. As a family business it is highly likely you will be working with a sibling in varying capacities, be it at the coalface or even in the boardroom, making family business decisions in a leadership position. How do you maintain harmony during difficult discussions or trying times, and still come together for family gatherings?

There is no rule anywhere that says that siblings must get along or even like each other for that matter. Having the same parents seems to have little impact on whether siblings are similar, see things the same way, or even become friends. I look at my two daughters. While they get on well, they are totally different in just about all ways – from their interests, career choices, senses of humour, height and personality.  

So, all siblings, while related are truly individual with unique skills, strengths, visions, dreams and experiences of the family. When you add in the other issues of sibling rivalry, jealousies, birth order, personalities, etc. it becomes understandable that siblings get into conflict.

We’ve worked with huge numbers of siblings who work together and run family businesses.  Some of them are the most successful family businesses around – but don’t be fooled, they all had to work very hard to get there.

I remember a brother in a very successful business complaining about his sibling and saying, if she wasn’t his sister and working in the business, there is no way he would have hired her. But he was ‘stuck with her’. Thinking about this and knowing both siblings, they were in many ways perfect for each other. They were very different, had very different strengths, irritated each other hugely but their skills were highly complementary. One was a numbers person, one was a marketing person, one had great leadership skills, the other was a negotiator – as a pair, they were very good and ran an incredibly successful family business.  

In another family, we have two brothers who are running an extremely successful business, they inherited from their parents. Again, very different people with very different talents, and personalities. They at times fight like ‘cat and dog’ but the reality is they could not run their family business anywhere near as well individually as they can as siblings working together.  

One family business with two siblings who disliked each other intensely as teenagers, were able to settle their differences and work together to run an amazing business that is flourishing and growing. Don’t think this was easy or quick— it took patience, honesty and courage.

What these stories tell us is that it is entirely possible for siblings who are very different and often in conflict with one another to work extremely effectively together.  

What is not immediately obvious is the amount of work that each of these siblings have had to commit to in order to achieve this.

The Five Things Siblings Need to Do to Avoid Conflict in the Family Business:

  1. Forget history. Every family and every family member has history. Some feel their parents favoured one sibling over another, or one had all the lucky breaks, or one worked harder than the other. Some siblings were pretty awful to each other as kids and teenagers, said some pretty nasty things… this is all fairly natural common family stuff.

    If you are going to work with your sibling, you need to put this stuff behind you. You will need to talk about it, acknowledge it and in some cases apologise. For two brothers, this involved a very frank conversation about:

    • What had happened;
    • How it had impacted one of them; and,
    • How they were going to work respectfully together going forward.

    With great courage they decided to move on and have been working amazingly well together for many years.

  2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Much of the cause of disagreement between siblings is assumptions and poor communication – they feed off each other. And because they are often so different, their communication style is usually completely different. Invariably the intentions are good, however with poor communication and unhelpful assumptions, conflict and disagreement prevail.

    Focus on communication in the business context. How they communicate socially or in the family could be very different which is fine, but for the purposes of this exercise, keep the business context in mind.

  3. Find the vision. What is the overarching long-term vision that they both have for the family business? Is it to grow a multi-generational family business? Is it to grow it and sell? It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s getting clear agreement between the two. What this does is identify the common ground, the areas that they both agree on and the things they need to focus on when they start getting irritated at one another.
  4. Acknowledge Strengths. Have the conversation to acknowledge each other’s strengths and potential weaknesses. We all have them and it’s important to acknowledge them. Some are going to be great at numbers, fantastic at detail, brilliant at marketing, leading, presenting, negotiating. But no one person is going to be good at them all. As siblings you have the opportunity to combine these strengths and work as one.
  5. Clarify Expectations and Roles. We know from our years of running management and leadership courses, unclear expectations and roles are the biggest source of conflict in family business. So, define them! Who is responsible for what, who has how much sign off, when do you consult with each other, etc.

While we’re at it, here’s one very practical change that can make a difference: Have regular operational meetings – for example, one 30 minute meeting per week. All this needs to focus on is what’s happening during the week. For the longer strategic conversations, keep those for the Board Meetings – you do have a Board, don’t you?

Finally, out of the siblings I mentioned above, only one set were able to do this without an outside mediator and coach. Having an outside independent person is immensely helpful and allows both siblings to sort out the differences and come to good agreements. It is a great investment in sustaining your family business legacy.

If you are finding it tough working with your sibling/s, know that it is very common. Whether you are trying to avoid sibling conflict within your family business or trying to focus on conflict resolution, the above advice will help you achieve great outcomes.

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