Assessing relationship fit



Assessing fit between you and a career in the family business

Once you’ve embarked on the process of deciding whether to join the family business, it can be tempting to make a decision quickly. Make sure to take your time to fully assess the fit between you and a career in your family business, in three respects:

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This article focuses on assessing relationship fit, which answers the question: Can you manage key relationships in a way that will allow you to be effective at work and have satisfying family relationships?

Why it’s important to assess relationship fit

Your work life involves more than just performing your job duties. To be successful in your career, you also need to work well with people—take direction from managers, collaborate with peers, supervise members of your team, represent the owners. Many intelligent, hardworking people run into career problems and disappointment because of challenging work relationships. How you manage relationships and the quality of your relationships matter as they impact your enjoyment and success in your family business. And because you are part of a business-owning family, your “work relationships” extend beyond the workplace, to include relationships with the owners and family members as well as professional colleagues.

Poor relationships can have a powerful, negative impact on our lives. But we tend to underestimate the toll they can take over time and overestimate our ability to improve them. As humans, we tend to see things more positively than they are. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winning psychologist and economist, calls this an “optimistic bias.” This bias leads us to downplay or ignore warning signs when we face important decisions, like what job we should take.

In the process of deciding whether to join the family business, watch for this “optimistic bias.” Take time to honestly assess:

  • How well would I get along with family members or others who are currently working in the family business, or likely to work there in the future (like my siblings or cousins)?
  • What would it be like to work for my parent, or with my siblings and cousins?
  • What would it be like to be accountable to the board and to my aunts, uncles, and cousins as owners of the business?
  • Would working in the family business likely strain or improve certain relationships?
  • Am I committed to maintaining positive relationships, improving key relationships, and taking an active role in building family unity?

Measuring and improving work relationship quality

How can you measure the quality of something as abstract as a relationship? Let’s break it down into four components. A good work relationship is experienced—hopefully by both parties—as:

  • Productive – we get a lot done together
  • Easy – we encounter few difficulties working together
  • Enjoyable – it’s an enjoyable experience to work together
  • Learning – we learn a lot from working with each other

If a work relationship is “mostly likely” to yield a positive result in these four ways, it’s pretty strong and likely to be resilient in the future. If you are “mostly unlikely” to get these outcomes, the work relationship would be problematic and in need of improvement.

How can you improve a problematic work relationship or make sure you are maintaining a strong one? These six factors have a profound impact on the quality of a work relationship:

  1. Seek alignment on goals. Clarify what you are trying to accomplish together for the company or for yourselves.
  2. Agree on the power and responsibilities you each have. Set clear expectations for who should do what and who should decide what.
  3. Manage your work styles. Understand where you are similar and where you are different in your styles and preferences. Recognize the strengths of each and how you can support each other.
  4. Build trust in each other’s skills, judgment, and intentions. Show appreciation for each other’s strengths, care for each other’s success, and follow each other’s lead as appropriate.
  5. Cultivate respect, admiration, and love. A strong foundation will make it easier to weather natural disagreements and make interactions more enjoyable.
  6. Listen to each other and communicate regularly. Stay open and curious and ask questions when you don’t understand each other.

Which work relationships deserve your attention?

It isn’t necessary to do a deep analysis of all of your family relationships. Instead, focus your attention on the 3–4 individuals in your family business system with whom you will interact most frequently or whose support would be most crucial for your success and satisfaction in the company. These key individuals might be a family executive in the company (say your father or an aunt), a relative who is a key owner, an important family leader, or a non-family manager or board member.

You want to measure the quality of these 3–4 key relationships to help you assess whether you can manage them in a way that will allow you to be effective at work and have satisfying family relationships.



For a fulfilling career, you need to understand the dynamics of key work relationships you would have if you were to join the family business. In a family business, a “work” relationship extends beyond the workplace to include family and ownership relationships too.

Consider which relationships would be most critical to your career success, and assess the quality of those relationships. How easy, productive, enjoyable, and growth-oriented are your interactions with those individuals?

Do not fall prey to the optimistic bias. Be practical and realistic about what is necessary to maintain or repair relationships in your family business system.