It’s all about relationships in family business – one of the most complex business environments known to man. Relationships among employed family members determine whether working in the family business will be a joy for everyone, or a “passion play” fraught with drama and trauma. This emphasis on relationships is what makes family business unique, and it can either be its greatest strength or fatal weakness.

We all get stuck in and shaped by our past. This is why the transition from unhealthy family relationships to healthy ones is the real challenge that family businesses face. Making this transition is possible, though, if the family business model incorporates these essential elements: Communication, Boundaries, Competency and Alignment. This time, let’s focus on Communication and Boundaries.


Understanding the brain and how it communicates will profoundly deepen our effectiveness in managing the complexity of family business relationships. There are many powerful concepts and techniques being made in behavioral neuroscience that are grounded in remarkable advancements. One such technique at the leading edge of human relationship management is Restorative Communication.

Essentially, the goal of Restorative Communication is a much deeper appreciation within the family of the role that communication plays in relationships, as well as the skills necessary to apply good communication techniques in the family business.

When improving the inner workings of a family business, I focus first on communication and how to understand and improve interaction in the family business. Without good communication, it is almost impossible to move forward. In other types of business, individuals do not have the deep psychological exposure that exists among family members. But family businesses do, and this can complicate company efficiency. Every family has its issues, and they must be addressed over time and put to rest so they do not have a deleterious effect on the operation of the business. Communication, of course, is essential to this process. It builds the mutual respect and trust that is imperative for a healthy relationship– without these qualities, a relationship is doomed. Highly functional family business relationships begin with clear, constructive communication, grounded in mutual respect and trust.


In addition to strong communication, boundaries between family members must be clear and observed in a family business. Managing is about introduction of and adherence to professional practices and procedures, developing clear responsibility for various tasks and holding specific persons responsible for the outcomes. Too often, there is not enough clarity on responsibility and individuals are excused from accountability because they are family members. This is where boundaries come in: knowing when to draw the line in order to cut the people who do not pull their weight. If boundaries between family home-life and family business aren’t enforced, then the whole organization can be brought down.

Years ago I had a young family member working on a crew say to another worker, “You better treat me right because some day I will be running this business.” When we learned about it, another family member and I took that young man into the “woodshed” and helped him get clear on the behavior expected. The resolution was that if he ever did anything like that again, he would be fired. There was no question about whether the termination would happen, it was a matter of “if and when.” He learned his lesson, a little late, but he learned it.

The Nitty Gritty: Qualities of Success

To succeed, a family-owned business needs to be as good or better than its competition. It is as simple as that. There is no shortcut.

To quote Vince Lombardi, The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Work ethic in family business doesn’t differ from other companies: get the job done, do it right and move on to the next task. Family business must be about excellence. That is the only acceptable way to move forward.

Next week I will speak about two other elements that are imperative for any family business owner to keep in mind if he or she wants to cultivate a thriving workplace.


David Bork

David Bork

David Bork pioneered the integration of Family Systems Theory with sound business practice in his career as a family business consultant. His profile of the families who practice constructive behaviors – who remain positively connected and successful in business – has been researched and validated by objective, university-based studies. In his practice, he encourages clients to take the long view in their business planning, a strategy that has served them very well. David’s level of expertise is balanced by his modest, friendly, and approachable style. He has worked with clients in multiple countries on six continents and loves to find the best local coffee shop in each of the places he visits.

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