News & Insight
September 2012

Trapped in the Family Business®

If you do not have direct experience in a family business, you probably don’t know what it feels like, or maybe how it is even possible, to be trapped in a family business.

“How can you be trapped?” you might ask. “You don’t have a ‘real’ boss and you can make your own hours. You might even have ownership in the company (now or in the future) and you have more power than a regular employee. You get to work with people you care about, you get to contribute to something that is bigger than any one person, and your name is even on the door!”

To borrow a term from the corporate world, feeling trapped in any business can be caused by possessing “golden handcuffs.” These handcuffs are typically financial and other incentives to keep an employee from leaving the company (e.g., stock options, etc., that won’t be accessible if the employee leaves).

For those feeling trapped in a family business, however, “emotional handcuffs” may be a more relevant term. Guilt, obligation, history, legacy—all of these can play a role in bringing someone into the family business and keeping him or her there.

In addition to this, all of the perceived benefits of being in a family business can also have a downside. Having your name on the door translates to not being able to ever really take time off (you are always “on call” in one way or another). Family business also comes with its own burdens of protecting and growing the company for future generations, not to mention for the sake of those who have come before. Autonomy (i.e., being one’s own boss, making one’s own schedule) often comes with the price of filling many different roles as needed, resulting in a general lack of clear (and written) job responsibilities.

For those who feel they are “trapped”, it is important to develop a realistic and objective view of their situation. Although there may be an intense desire to take action immediately, it is much more advisable to take a thorough, objective, and honest look at the situation and potential next steps.

Part of this process may include seeking the counsel of others, whether its friends, other family members, business advisors, spiritual leaders, therapists or teachers. Regardless of who you decide to involve, you should make sure that you connect with at least one person who has no stake in your actions or decisions. The people who will be affected the most by what you do are the least able to be objective and consider your best interests above all else - whether we realize it or not, it is virtually impossible to be neutral when we will be directly involved in an outcome of a decision. People involved in the family business might have a very difficult time separating theirown needs from what is best for you.

An external colleague or independent advisor who does not work for the family business is more at liberty to ask the hard questions because he or she is less likely to have an investment in the final decision. If you have been surrounded by the family business your entire life, this may be harder to grasp because your network of colleague, friends, and advisors are all involved in the business in one way or another.

One of the most helpful things you can do for yourself is to find others in the same or similar situations. Why is this helpful? Because just about all human beings feel shame or embarrassment when they believe their situation (or feeling, or experience) is strange or unusual. And that shame or embarrassment gets in the way of solving problems and improving situations.

In a family business, it can be especially tricky, because you likely do not, and cannot, share your personal thoughts with coworkers. By contrast, in nonfamily business settings, coworkers can be a great source of support and feedback. At the very least, they can be a bit more objective than a sibling or parent.

When you are able to realize and see that others are in the same boat as you, it increases your own ability to be thoughtful and honest. Most importantly, it saves time and energy that would be wasted on blaming yourself for not being like everyone else.

When you learn that others have experienced the same situations, feelings, and thoughts you have, it can be a great relief. You may find you are suddenly liberated – to search for solutions, to speak with others more candidly, and to see your situation as just that – a situation, not a prison sentence, a terminal illness, or a fundamental flaw in your character.

“Trapped in the Family Business ®: A Practical Guide for Understanding & Managing this Hidden Dilemma” by WJM Faculty member Michael A. Klein, PsyD. Available in paperback and e-book on and other online and local booksellers.

Excerpted from:

Michael is an assessment specialist, writer, speaker and workshop leader for leaders, entrepreneurs and independent professionals.

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