Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Accountability

Family Dysfunction at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

I joined my family business seven years ago. We have since grown the firm by 200 percent. Despite our success, I’ve had several struggles with my sister, who has a history of either showing up late or not showing up at all. I have talked to her, but she doesn’t feel the need to be accountable to us. In addition, her role and responsibilities are not clearly defined, so it’s hard to hold her accountable.

When I confront my parents about her performance, they throw up their hands and say, “Well, you know what she’s like.” It seems they want to work as little as possible and are willing to hand off all responsibility. This is fine, but I do not want my sister as my partner. I’m scared that even if I can hold her accountable, she will continue to collect a paycheck while putting in minimal effort.

How can I create a contract that holds her accountable and potentially eliminates her if she takes advantage of the situation? I feel this is the only solution. If her heart was really in it, she’d put in as much effort as I do.

Absentee Sister

Dear Absentee Sister,

First, congratulations on your success. Clearly you’ve got a lot to offer in your position.

With that said, you may think this issue is with your sister, but I’d suggest she’s not the first person you need to have a crucial conversation with—she’s the third. The first crucial conversation you need to have is with yourself.

Long before addressing your sister, be clear about the choice you’re making in a family business. As you know, a family business marries workplace dysfunction with family dysfunction. To be an effective leader, take responsibility for your choice to be in this kind of emotionally complex situation and decide what you are and aren’t willing to live with as the leader of this family-owned company. Ask yourself, “What are my requirements to make the job both doable and enjoyable?” “What boundaries do I want my parents and sister to honor?”

The bottom line is this: If there is nothing that would cause you to walk away, then you’re a prisoner not a leader. Prisoners blame their captors for their misery. Leaders look to themselves. So begin by deciding what you will and won’t accept. Then stick with your resolution.

As you sort through this, you may well admit to yourself that there are no conditions under which you would ever leave. Perhaps the financial benefits are too attractive. Perhaps you doubt your ability to be successful elsewhere. Perhaps you don’t want to disappoint your parents. Whatever the reasons, you may find that even if your parents undermine your leadership and enable your sister’s poor performance, you’d still stick around. If that’s so, take responsibility for your choice. When your parents and your sister act as they do, realize that you have chosen to live with this. Don’t blame them for being who they’ve always been.

If, however, there are conditions under which you would leave, be clear about those as well, then prepare yourself mentally, strategically, and otherwise to enforce them. Prepare a “walk away” strategy by clarifying how you would actually make the break. Think it through to gain the emotional and psychological independence you need to approach the next conversation maturely. If you don’t take this step, you’ll feel a need to control your parents or sister to eliminate the threat to your security. Prepare to walk away and you’ll make staying a healthier option.

Having clarified the boundaries you require, your next crucial conversation is with your parents. Lay out what you are trying to accomplish with the company and the degrees of freedom you’ll need to meet your goals. If the performance issue with your sister is truly a critical success factor, then you need to lay out the various contingencies that might emerge as you deal with her. See if they are willing to let you do what needs to be done. Will they honor your decision to reduce her pay? Narrow her responsibilities? How about if she is terminated? It may be they will accept some of these, but not all. In that case, decide if you are willing to live with that—and, once again, make your choice.

Having made these agreements, be willing to step up to a crucial confrontation with your parents if they equivocate. If you are willing and able to do that, you can move to the third conversation.

Finally, approach your sister. If there is bad blood, jealousy, or past resentment, you’ll have a hard time creating safety. To rebuild respect and trust, acknowledge some of your own inappropriate behavior in the past. Make sure your motives are truly pure—that none of this is about being right or winning. You have to be beyond reproach and be willing to let idiosyncrasies slide, while putting real performance issues front and center.

When you’ve established safety and ensured she trusts your motives, engage her in a conversation about expectations and consequences. Ask her what role she’d like in the company. Describe to her your view of what’s working and not working today. Ask her to share what she sees differently. Share with her the natural consequences of her current action—on the company, on customers, on other employees, on the culture, etc. Then frankly and clearly lay out your expectations. If appropriate, you may even ask her whether there are alternative roles she could take that would give her greater flexibility while still allowing you to keep high performance standards in critical positions. But at the end of the day, be sure you’re doing what’s right for the company as well.

Be ready to hold her accountable. If she slips, you need to do what you’ve asked your parents for permission to do. Realize that in so doing, she may blame you or become alienated from you. If so, refuse to fuel her villain story by becoming petty, cold or vindictive. Treat her with exactly the same respect and dignity you would treat any employee who is underperforming. Be kind, pleasant, and firm.

And if and when holiday dinners are more strained because you’re mixing family and business, swallow hard and take responsibility for your decision to take the bad with the good!

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

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