Don’t Break the Christmas Dinner Rule – How to Manage Conflict in a Family Business
Ten years ago a father decided to give 100% of his shares of the family business to his oldest son. He barely discussed this with his family and other children (a son and daughter) and after thinking he was making the right decision, and ignoring what his son and daughter were saying, he transferred the shares. This was despite his daughter having worked there full time for the previous 10 years, some of the time 7 days a week and his other son also working there full time. For some reason he made this decision…
The fall out through the family has rumbled on for the past 10 years--now, 10 years later, the son who inherited the shares only occasionally speaks to his father--he thinks the rest of the family blame him. The daughter has not spoken to her father for 8 years and nor have her children spoken to their grandfather. The other son is looking to move to another city--he can’t stand the ‘family stuff’ as he describes it.
The father exclaimed in tears that he “never started the business to tear his family apart”, but this is exactly what happened. It’s the true story of a family that has totally broken down--it’s a scenario to avoid.
This is a prime example of someone who has totally broken the Christmas Dinner Rule.
Having worked with many family businesses over the last 12 years, I have seen first-hand how families in business deal with conflict - some families do it well - but for others it’s a disaster.
Christmas is for families
For most families, Christmas holds the promise of a wonderful caring and loving time spent with loved ones. A time to relax and enjoy the close family relationships. A time to celebrate.
But Christmas can also bring out the worst in us and can cause stress and familial conflict. And when you throw in the added pressures of running a business with the people you’re sitting around the dinner table with, it can be extremely challenging.
Running a business isn't easy
Running a business with family members isn’t easy. You can simultaneously be a daughter, the MD, a director and a shareholder. And in this mix you’re also responsible for employees, managing risk, promoting the brand and of course investing and growing family money.
This is no small level of responsibility.
And of course, you have to work professionally with your siblings, parents and other relatives - putting aside all those irritating habits that family members have.
Are we asking the impossible? No, but it has its challenges.
And that’s why the Christmas Dinner Rule is so important.
Read blog: Business Succession Planning Begins With Life Goals
Christmas can bring out the best … and worst in us
It’s no secret that the holiday season can place greater stress and tension on already strained family and business relationships. In fact, in my years as a trusted adviser to many family businesses, I have seen how volatile families can become at a time when they should be joyous.
Tension between business priorities and family relationships can lead to conflict over these holiday periods ... and can cause irreparable damage.
The chance to work with family members who we trust with our lives can be extraordinarily rewarding. Family are usually the only ones who will go that extra mile (or three) for us and for the business - persevering when others would have given up.
But the combination of love and money is a potent brew.
We often hurt the ones we love most
We often say things to family members that we would never, ever say to anyone else. We are often tougher on family members than we are on others and of course family members can aggravate us in ways that no non-family member can.
So what is the Christmas Dinner Rule?
...And why is it so important to stick to?
The Christmas Dinner Rule is the key rule for any families who work together in business, or on the farm. Working in any family business (a family business has two or more family members working as well as being owned by the family) has its challenges - and its rewards.
And with Christmas approaching fast, there are a few things we need to do as a family, to ensure we don’t break the rule.
The Christmas Dinner Rule is simple. Yes, you can have your fights and your arguments … your disagreements and explosions. But… and it’s a big but…
You need to remember, this is family. All arguments and fights need to be kept at a level where, aided perhaps by a few drinks, you can all sit around the Christmas dinner table and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Otherwise, it turns into holiday hell.
Five rules for families at Christmas
- Talk about family and what’s going on with them — what the kids are up to, who’s studying what, who got what marks at school, what’s the next adventure, celebrate the year, the wins, the achievements, the near misses. Forget the business—keep business conversations and family conversations separate
- Forget the arguments and disagreements you’ve had over the year, yes they might be important but this is Christmas dinner and right now, that is far more important.
- Remember, while some members of your family may irritate the heck out of you — you probably do the same to them. This is family—you know each other better than anyone else so be patient, be forgiving and be kind. Be aware and pay attention to emotions. Don’t say or do things that can’t be undone
- Ok so your sister’s husband put petrol in the diesel ute…again… forget and forgive—it’s just not that important!
- Remember what the real priority is—your family. Every family says they’ll never let the business get in the way of the family. However, this can and does happen if you’re not careful, and it is a total and unmitigated disaster when it does—I know I’ve seen it too many times. And Christmas becomes lonely and quiet.
And sometimes, leaving issues at the front door of the family home is a great way to put a separation between family and business. Be transparent about these intentions and decide to pick any issues back up in a constructive way in the New Year.
If you follow these tips, when Christmas day comes along, you should all be willing to sit down at the table and have a happy, wonderful, loving Christmas dinner filled with laughter.
And on Christmas Day...
It’s about now you need to recognise just how lucky you are to have your amazing family around you.
Lean in and feel how much love there is around the table and how important you are to everyone…
... despite your son insisting that you follow the bloody silly OHS rules…
... or your Mum insisting that you do the paperwork the right way,
... or your sister shooting down your latest investment idea that you knew was going to make a motza!
...or the knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out screaming match you had with your brother, cause again, he’d screwed up the billing system that you had so painstakingly organised -you actually love each other.
You’re family. And there is nothing quite as important as family.
We run a business or run a farm to make money and provide a living for ourselves, our kids and our grandkids. Family comes first - the business can never be allowed to get in the way of family relationships - this is what the Christmas Dinner rule is all about.
This blog post is written by Philip Pryor, an expert from the Icehouse ecosystem. Philip is the founder of Family Business Central, providing advice and strategies for family business governance. He has had a long career in Governance matters and has a reputation for being a trusted and reliable resource for resolving extremely difficult family business issues and problems. Philip can be contacted on +64 27 411 8820 or Philip@familybusinesscentral.co.nz
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