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Articles - Communication Skills in Family - Business

Don't avoid conflict and confrontation when you work with your spouse

Friday, August 08, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


"I just let him handle things his way."

"We're not very good at resolving problems, so I let it go."

"I just hate confrontation!"

Listening, talking, communicating, resolving problems, making joint decisions... these are requirements for all business owners, not just entrepreneurial couples. Yet entrepreneurial couples often complain that communicating effectively with each other is the last thing they do.

Without good communication skills and quality time dedicated to communicating, relationships (business and personal) soon flounder and fail, especially among couples with the stress of two careers, or a joint enterprise, and a full family life. Moreover, the potential for a breakdown in communication grows as the complexity of the family/business system increases.

As a member of an entrepreneurial couple you are under more stress and potential conflict than others. The worlds of your personal life and work life overlap considerably, creating more intersecting points. This creates a highly complex system of constantly changing roles and rules.

Because you cannot really separate home and work, you must learn how to integrate these two worlds better. The tools you used for communicating and resolving conflicts before you worked together may just not be good enough anymore. As an entrepreneurial couple you and your spouse face dilemmas that may have never surfaced before to give you worry. This means you need to enhance your communication and problem solving skills beyond simple linear cause and effect (i.e. blame).

A major reason entrepreneurial couples don't talk is that they are avoiding conflict and confrontation. There is a common misconception that conflict and confrontation are bad. One of the major reasons entrepreneurial couples have problems is their failure to confront issues head-on. They may fight openly or quietly seethe, but they have a terrible time confronting the real conflict respectfully and honestly.

It's as if confrontation and conflict are impolite. However, conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship. You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

Do not fear conflict and confrontation. Because of the highly complex and interactive, multi-level system you have created as an entrepreneurial couple and family, conflicts are inevitable and actually a sign of growth. Therefore, avoiding conflict is not the goal. Rather you want to develop the tools to "lean into" conflicts and resolve them early on, so that you can reorganize your lives to include the new learning. Because entrepreneurial couples have a lot at stake when it comes to their business and their relationship, they are prone to avoid conflict or to use ineffective tools to solve the conflict too quickly. Compromising and acquiescing are two of these ineffective tools.

Most couples are shocked when I advise them to avoid compromises at all costs. After all, isn't compromise a requirement of partnership, both personal and business? The reality is that decisions that are arrived at through compromise usually lack creativity and seldom last. Sure, a compromise now and then may be necessary for the sake of expediency, but if a decision is important, a compromise may cause anger and resistance. Because compromises are usually a result of both people giving up something in order to get an agreement, the decision is a watered-down version of two stronger opinions. While it may be satisfactory to accept compromise decisions for things like choosing a restaurant for dinner, where neither of you gets your first choice but both must accept a third alternative, accepting a third, less-threatening alternative for your business may sabotage your competitive edge.

Compromise is the easy way out when you are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. It appears that the compromise will smooth ruffled feathers and that both partners can go away happy. What really happens, however, is that each partner leaves feeling as though they have been had.

One person may resent having to compromise and will be looking for ammunition to prove that the decision was a bad one. Another person may feel he or she has done the honorable thing by not pushing his or her opinion on the other, only to feel unappreciated later when the compromise plan is dropped. If you stop and think about it, how long have your compromise decisions really lasted?

Acquiescing or forcing your opinion upon your partner are other ways of avoiding conflict. In seeking to avoid conflict, for example, a persuasive person may push his or her partner to acquiesce to a certain point of view, but this does not mean that the partner agrees. It may mean only that the partner actually does not want to fight and so appears to agree, when he or she has only given in.

Don't make the mistake of pushing to win at all costs or to acquiescing to the persuader, when you don't agree. In either case, if you are the persuader or the acquiescent partner, the conflict has not been resolved and, what's worse, may have been driven underground.

If you don't make time to talk, if you don't consider nurturing your personal relationship as important as nurturing your business, and if you avoid healthy conflict and confrontation, your partnership/relationship will disintegrate into two uninvolved business associates at the best, and into bitterness and divorce at the worst. So take the time now to evaluate your communication skills and your life/business plan. Invest in the time to develop a meaningful, loving relationship with your spouse that enhances your business relationship.

Resolving conflict can protect the family unit and business

Thursday, February 13, 2003


By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Ask yourself who you would rather work with, a family member or a trusted friend or colleague. List five family members whom you trust and five friends or colleagues whom you trust. Of these ten people, with whom would you choose to start a brand new business?

When I asked this question recently of attendees at a trade show, the majority said they would work with a friend before they would a family member. Their reasoning is that they wouldn't want to risk alienating a family member and upsetting the entire family if the business partnership should not work out. What is most interesting about their responses is that a good 90% of the attendees were already working in a family firm!

While the rewards of working with the ones you love are many, such as the benefit of working with someone whom you trust and who will work as hard as you do, there are significant liabilities. The major one that plagues most family firms is the inability to resolve conflict constructively. This inability leads to resentment, hostility, alienation and family feuds.

Family firms have the unique distinction of blending both the needs of a family and the needs of a thriving business. While the goal of the business is growth through competition, the goal of the family is to nurture and protect all family members. As a result, family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms because the business growth is compromised by the need to protect family members, even those who do not really belong in the business.

Conflict in any family is disagreeable, but it is even more so in a family that also works together. Ordinary conflicts that other business owners have to deal with are submerged in a family business for fear of "hurting" a family member's feelings, or offending one's parent or spouse. The need to protect the family system, to keep this system in tact, is quite strong. All of us grew up with the knowledge that to betray a family rule was to risk the safety of the family.

Anthropologists suggest that this protection of the family system is a part of our survival as a species. We seem to have a genetic need to belong to a family where we can share food, shelter and emotional comfort with our kinfolk. Political experiments that disrupt the standard family unit usually do not last. Research is even showing that children learn better in school if educators structure assignments to better represent individual student's family values.

Given that belonging to a family is a stronger need than striking out on one's own, families tend to discourage conflict and confrontation. This keeps family members home. However, in a business, avoiding conflict can lead to serious problems. Sometimes out of conflicts arise tremendous ideas for the growth and success of the business. Wrestling with ideas brings out resolutions never before thought of and it often clears the path for junior members of an organization to show what they are made of. But in family firms, all too often conflicts get submerged rather than aired in a healthy context.

Those of you who currently work with your spouse or other family members may be thinking that conflict is rampant in your family. The problem is that the frequent fighting may not be solving anything. When ordinary conflicts get submerged as they too often do in family firms, things fester. Family members may brood or bicker but never really confront the issue head on. Sometimes there is a major blow up at the office, but this is not healthy confrontation. This is merely "letting off steam," only to have it build up again until the next fight.

Some of the signs of submerged conflict in family firms are (1) the increase in alcoholism and drug dependence among family firm members; (2) infidelity and multiple marriages or liaisons; (3) child abuse; (4) acting-out children (i.e., poor grades, suicide threats, drug abuse, numerous traffic violations, disregard for the rights of others); (5) chronic depression; (6) frequent fighting to no end.

In order to get to the bottom of conflicts, family firm members need to be brave. You need to trust that you are doing what's best for the family as well as the business by confronting family problems. Even if you have the minority view, it may be an important view. In your family and family firm there may be room for more than one view.

Confrontation need not be nasty and abusive. Confrontation is just "taking the bull by the horns." Be respectful but firm. Acknowledge that you may not be right, but that the family needs to talk. Keep talking until the family has come to a mutually agreeable solution.

Most people report that they feel closer to those with whom they have resolved conflicts. The misunderstandings that lead to the conflicts are often just that, misunderstandings, not a major difference in values. And if you discover that there is a major difference in values and these differences are not good for the business, it's best to discover these differences so that sound business decisions can be made. If a father and son really want to take the business in different directions, perhaps they should part the business, not maintain a cool emotional distance from each other in the office.

But rest assured whether a member leaves the business or not, the family goes on forever. Conflict and confrontation strengthen a family, despite the unpleasantness in the moment of unresolved dissension. While it's true that families take on different shapes and sizes over the years as children marry, grandchildren are born, founders die, even an occasional divorce, the family as an entity survives. The same cannot be said for a business. It can be sold or dissolved permanently.

One of my daughters brought home this poem by an unknown author and I think it sums up the values that any family business should be proud to live by.

Our family's like a patchwork quilt
With kindness gently sewn.
Each piece is an original
With a beauty of its own.
With threads of warmth and happiness
It's tightly stitched together
To last in love throughout the years
Our family is forever.

Is it time to renegotiate your marriage/business contract?

Thursday, January 02, 2003




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., P.S.


Think for a moment about the tasks you perform in your role as husband or wife. Who does the laundry? Who cooks breakfast? Who chauffeurs the children to events? Who balances the checkbook? Who changes the oil in the car?

Now think again about the task assignments at work (for those of you who work with your spouse this is particularly meaningful). Who does the bookkeeping? Who greets the customer? Who hires new employees? Who negotiates the contracts? Where does the "Buck stop"?

Don't be limited by the few questions mentioned in the last two paragraphs. Make a list of your duties and those of your spouse and really evaluate the division of labor, both at home and work. Then ask yourself (and your spouse), just how did we arrive at this division of responsibilities anyway?

Most married couples never stop to think about consciously discussing duties, tasks, chores, and responsibilities. Things just follow a certain course and you are either happy with it or not.

Actually the research shows that in most family firms, job assignments both at home and at work follow traditional gender divisions of responsibility. That is, men do "men's work" and women do "women's work." At work the wives generally handle the bookkeeping and support work and at home they take care of cooking, cleaning and children. The husbands are the leaders and decision makers at work (and at home), while at home they handle small repairs.

In contrast, dual-career couples have a non-traditional division of responsibilities. Wives and husbands are generally responsible for leadership and decision-making at work. At home, these couples think of themselves as "social partners" who are equally responsible for household and childcare duties. This non-traditional style is called "egalitarian."

Regardless of the marital style, traditional or egalitarian, all couples, both copreneurs and dual-career couples, report satisfaction with their style. The traditional copreneurs do not desire an egalitarian style and the egalitarian dual-career couples do not desire a more traditional style. This concept is called "equity." It means that even if the division of responsibilities isn't equal (at home or work), nor based upon assignment to the most qualified, these couples feel that the assignment is fair.

But what about those copreneurs who desire an egalitarian style? Or those dual-career couples who desire a more traditional style? Or what if you and your spouse are a blend of the two, not really fitting into either camp? Then your job is much more difficult, but not impossible. It becomes necessary to sit down together and analyze your situation. First, answer the question, "what do you want?"

Your marriage contract is more than a marriage license. It is a group of assumptions that you make about marriage and your partner and yourself. The assumptions you first made at age 22 may not fit for you at 42. The assumptions that guided you through those first years were probably modified when the children came along. They were further modified as the children entered college or when you started your business. Yet, probably neither one of you thought to sit down and analyze what you wanted or what was best given the new set of circumstances.

So your first task is to answer the question, "what do you want now in your marriage and business partnership, considering your current situation?" Be flexible. Be willing to let go of old ways that worked once, but are no longer appropriate. Both partners in the marriage must feel that the division of responsibilities is equitable, but does the division also represent what is best for the business and each of you personally and professionally?

Another important task in this renegotiation of the marriage/business-partnership contract is to quell the inevitable fears that arise. I often hear people say, "I'm not going to change; you knew who I was when you married me; you better be happy with that!"

Unfortunately, if you give into these fears your marriage and the business are in for a rude awakening. Things do change and people move on. All of us change daily and it's doubtful that you are the same person you were twenty or thirty years ago, and neither is your spouse. When you hear your spouse complaining about change, or hear these words coming from yourself, realize that they are coming from a place of fear...fear of change and fear of the unknown. Change is inevitable and it will overtake you, or you can plan a little and guide the change process. It's your choice.

Successful marriages are neither traditional nor egalitarian, but are based upon a flexible marriage contract, one that changes with the needs and circumstances of the individuals involved. Just as a business must be aware of competition and marketplace factors, and change or lose, a marriage faces the same perils. While it is important to keep certain basic values in tact, there is much room for negotiation and change throughout the life of the marriage and the business.

Nancy and Steven had a traditional marriage during the first 30 years. Nancy helped put Steven through medical school, took care of the children, and even helped set up Steven's office. When the children were old enough she moved from part-time to full time in the clinic, managing the business. Steven meanwhile buried himself in his work and over the years developed a successful medical practice and the respect of his patients.

At the thirty-year mark, however, Nancy got restless. The kids were grown and grandchildren on the way. Steven didn't really need her in the office anymore, so she dropped back to part-time again, and went back to school. Four years later she was a lawyer. In order to help Nancy get going in her new profession, Steven peddled back on his practice by finding a responsible M.D. partner to take on some of his caseload.

Although it takes planning and recognition of keeping things equitable, it is possible to change marital and business styles when the need arises. Evaluate your situation now. Is it time to talk with your spouse and make some changes before they erupt into irreconcilable differences? Or if they are already erupting, take them on and make the most of the change for personal, marital and business growth.

Entrepreneurial couples can transform criticism into feedback

Thursday, December 13, 2001




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


When couples work together they have the opportunity to work with a partner they love and trust most. They also have the opportunity to see the best and worst of their partner . . . day in and day out. Even with the most enlightened people, this constant togetherness can cause conflict. It's wonderful to have closeness, rapport, and regular praise from your sweetheart. It just doesn't feel as wonderful to have your partner know you so well that they give you regular criticism as well.

Frequently the criticism starts out as a desire to help or to improve your partner, but disintegrates into an argument and hard feelings. The object of the criticism gets defensive and complains that the spouse must not love the person he or she married. And the person delivering the "help" feels rejected and misunderstood. Many couples opt for keeping quiet about these things so as not to start a fight. Others duke it out until someone "wins" which of course means that they got way off the subject. But neither of these approaches really takes care of the problem.

If you think about it your spouse may be one of the best people to help you improve. They probably know you better than anyone else and they probably love you more. If you are working together then they also get to see you in more than one role, so again they are in a unique position to help you grow. And that is what criticism is. It is a critical analysis of your behaviors and an offering of advice on how to change, grow and improve yourself.

If you view criticism from this new perspective it may not be so hard to swallow. For example, psychologists know that a person's IQ continues to grow throughout the lifespan well into old age, if the person is actively engaging in life and learning new things. Our natural instinct is to keep growing but we can't do that if we don't reevaluate from time to and time.

We need to check out old habits, rewrite some scripts, take a few risks, and try anything new to break out of a rut. If we don't attend to this we lose out personally. This is equally true for your business. If you intend on keeping your business healthy, you have to meet the needs of a changing marketplace.

The major problem with criticism is that it's harder to swallow when it comes from someone other than you. And it is even harder to swallow when it comes from someone we care a lot about. It hurts twice as much when the one who we love most thinks we need improving. On the other hand when we decide for ourselves that we need to change something, we give ourselves credit for being very smart to come up with such a good idea. This really seems like a silly game to play. Why not use the collective intelligence of those around you? Criticism from another doesn't make you bad or undesirable. It is just feedback for your enlightenment.

A word to the criticizer is in order here too. Just because you mean well and love your partner, doesn't mean he or she will recognize your good intention, especially if your criticism cuts to the heart of one of their most cherished beliefs. So go easy with the criticism.

The best method for delivering a critical comment is to wait for an opportune moment. For example if your partner is feeling particularly bluesy that day, or just lost an important contract, this is not an opportune moment to size up their inadequacies. However, if they are musing about how they might improve a certain situation you can offer your opinion. Be prepared to remind them that you value many things about them as well. You should always offer praise with a criticism so that your partner hears that you care about them even if you think they should change.

There are times, however, when you are criticizing your partner about something that just doesn't matter or is more a statement about your inability to be flexible than it is about their need to change. Take a good look at your criticisms and ask yourself if they are really necessary. Your partner may be doing the very best he or she can. Most likely your partner is 90% of what you would like in a spouse/business partner, but not everything. That would be hard to come by. Why aren't you satisfied with 90%? It might just be that there is a change you need to make, not your spouse.

Is it really a good idea to work with your spouse?

Friday, September 07, 2001




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Most of the time I am extolling the virtues of entrepreneurial couples, or at the very least, discussing how to successfully solve problems that come up for families in business. The lifestyle can be extremely rewarding when you work with the ones you love. As I have said often, "Who better to trust with your business than your spouse?" However, there is another side that should be looked at if you are considering the entrepreneurial couple life. That is, just what are you missing in your marriage and your work life by working with your spouse?

One of the major complaints I hear from practically all entrepreneurial couples is that they no longer have enough quality time together for romance and friendship. Oddly enough, working together for many couples turns out to be the only thing they do together. It is very easy to slip into work, work, work with your spouse at your side. You may not make a break for lunch to meet your spouse, because she's sitting right next to you. You may not pick up the phone to call him at the office, when you can just toss a note on his desk. When you get home, you may have talked about work all the way home in the car and continue the discussion through dinner . . . if you even have dinner.

So one of the really great reasons not to work together is to keep your worlds separate so that you get to come home to each other every night. When you have to leave work each day in order to reconnect with your family, you will actually make more of an effort to do so. When your family members are working by your side in a family business, you may make the mistaken assumption that you don't need to reconnect. But without that important psychological reconnecting, love starts to fade and fun with each other becomes a memory.

Another stressor for entrepreneurial couples is competition between them. This goes for other family members too. We have a strong need for recognition and approval from our spouses. We also have a strong need to feel like powerful, accomplished adults. Competing in the workplace with non-relatives can be like playing a game of tennis with a worthy opponent. Even if you lose to the competition, you can still feel OK about yourself because you did your best and your spouse can support you. But how do you feel about competing with your spouse? Who's the boss? Who defers to whom? Can you gloat about an accomplishment when you just bested your spouse?

When couples work separately either as solo entrepreneurs or as executives in separate organizations, they have the opportunity to be as competitive and goal oriented as they wish, with all of the support at home they need. They can be leaders in their respective fields with no fear of hurting the pride of their spouses. A side benefit of separate work environments is that with competition removed, each partner may actually be in a better position to hear feedback from their love partner.

Separate work environments create other advantages as well. Many members of family enterprises complain that their world is small. In other words they don't get out much, especially the women. When you work with family members, the only feedback you get is from family and this can be limiting. Working separately enables each partner to learn about the outside world more. They get feedback from colleagues other than family members and the feedback may be more honest. The research confirms that family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms for this reason alone . . . lack of creative feedback.

As important as it is to reconnect with your loved ones at least once a day, it is also important to have time to yourself. Seldom do I hear entrepreneurial couples complain that they have too much time with their spouses, but they do complain that they have no time to themselves. This is probably related to the overwork that results from running your own business. And it is probably related to the fact that they don't have a spouse calling them to come home or arranging a special evening out. Working separately means that your worlds have better defined boundaries. This doesn't mean that you will schedule much needed time at the gym, or call a friend for an outing, or steel some work time to play a round of golf, but defined boundaries do make us more organized. With organization comes a sense of importance about sticking to priorities. Taking care of your personal health and mental health should be a top priority for all of us.

There are many other benefits to working separately from your spouse, just as there are benefits to being an entrepreneurial couple. What is important in making life and career choices is to examine the whole picture. Choosing wisely means evaluating the downside with the upside. If you love your spouse and think you will be great business partners, you may be well suited to the entrepreneurial lifestyle. On the other hand, you might want to examine what you will be losing before you take the plunge. You may be brave enough to take some financial risk in order to achieve a career dream, but what level of risk are you willing to take with your marriage?


Good communication and trust strengthen family and business

Friday, July 13, 2001




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Many business owners are puzzled when their attorney or CPA suggests that they should meet with me before proceeding with signing a contract or structuring a reorganization or resolving a partnership disagreement. What's a psychologist have to do with business anyway? " I don't need a shrink," they say.

Yes, I get plenty of puzzled looks when I explain that I am a Psychologist and a Family/Business Consultant. But this makes a lot of sense when you take a look at a few basic facts. For example, half of American businesses are family owned and operated (and even more in the Northwest). Secondly, many of these businesses are run and staffed by family members who are not necessarily formally trained or educated for their specific job. They work for the business because they are trusted family members dedicated to the success of the family enterprise. Third, many of these businesses have been around two or three or four generations, which means that the children are growing up identifying themselves with the family business. What this means for many family firms is that the business is as much a part of the family and each family member as the family and each family member is a part of the business.

Recognizing that family/businesses are really families with a business identity, as a psychologist I am able to get beneath the surface of some business problems to identify the emotional snags that are hanging up a business decision. There is nothing more frustrating nor expensive than taking weeks and months to develop a new business strategy, only to have it sit there going nowhere because there is a family dispute. When Mom and Dad don't agree, or when Granpa doesn't approve of his successor, or when Daughter-in-law is at odds with Mother-in-law, or Son has a drug addiction problem, do you really think these things have no affect on the business? Yes many businesses continue to thrive for a while with serious problems like an alcoholic CEO, but what is the legacy for the next generation?

I believe it is very important to families in business to have the benefit of a psychologist's expertise when developing goals and resolving problems in their family enterprise. For example, I recently learned of an interesting study conducted in Oregon with troubled teens. The program results provide a valuable lesson for families in business too.

The program determined what mode of intervention works best in turning teens away from early school dropout and delinquency. The researchers compared several treatment groups. One group of teens attended a teen support group facilitated by a counselor. Another group of teens attended a teen support group, and also attended family therapy with their parents. Another group attended only family therapy. And a fourth group of teens only benefited by their parents attending a parent training class.

Over a five-year period, which group do you think made the most progress toward reducing delinquency and high school dropout among troubled teens? Interestingly the groups that were most successful were the parent training only and the family therapy group without a teen support group. When teens are allowed to socialize with other troubled teens, they just teach each other bad lessons. But when parents learn how to successfully parent and when teens work with their parents to resolve their problems, the whole family benefits.

There are two lessons here for families in business. First, whenever you are planning a new goal or you are stuck accomplishing a goal, the whole family needs to be involved in the solution. Secondly, the solution to any problem in any family, whether it be a business family or not, depends upon the parents or leadership. When the parents or leadership are strong and well educated about what works in a healthy family system, problems get addressed and solved sooner.

The teens in the above study were not elevated to the position of leadership in their families because they were part of solution discussions. But they were included in the discussions and learned problem-solving skills with their parents. A similar system works beautifully in successful family firms. Such firms have regular family business retreats where discussions ensue among stockholders and stakeholders alike. Open communication is an important key. But even more important is that open communication makes all family members feel like important contributors to the welfare of the family enterprise.

Many family firms want to have open communication. They want to resolve longstanding family/business disputes. They don't like walking on eggshells around certain family members or avoiding sensitive subjects. So why don't they get on with it? Why do their attorneys, CPAs and other business advisors have files filled with incomplete projects? Because in spite of good intentions, many of these family firms do not have the skills to address and resolve these problems. They need support and guidance by a psychologist who is trained in resolving problems within a family business system. They need education to learn these skills.

Not everyone is a natural born communicator. Not everyone knows how to "diagnose" family system problems. Not everyone has the courage to confront their family or a family member when love and dollars are at stake. It is no shame to be uneducated about these things. However it is a shame to let your embarrassment over your lack of education get in the way of seeking professional help. Remember a family business is first and foremost a family. Just as in the study of the troubled teens, if you strengthen the family, the individuals and the business will thrive.

Couples can balance dynamics of decision-making process

Thursday, November 23, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Have you ever wondered why the symbol for "Justice" is a woman and she's blind to boot? Or another curiosity is that the statue in New York harbor, representing the United States of America is Lady Liberty. What is it that these female spirits represent? Why are women the symbol of our judicial system and the country as a whole? I think a partial answer may come from observing the growth of entrepreneurship among American women, both as solo entrepreneurs and as entrepreneurial couples.

Now that women are starting businesses in record numbers (i.e. three to five times the rate of men!) there are many more stories about startups that involve women entrepreneurs. Especially the Internet and telecommuting have opened an avalanche of opportunities for women. Women are also better educated than before and many are educated in traditionally male dominated fields such as business management, the sciences, and engineering. As a result we are gathering more and more information on how these women function as entrepreneurs and how they are different than men.

In spite of parity in education, equal access to financing and an Internet marketplace that doesn't impose gender restrictions, there are a few male/female traditions that hold. When the owner is female you may not see much difference in a company, either with the product or the revenue. However, the differences between male and female entrepreneurs become more apparent when a husband and wife equally own and operate a company. Management, decision-making, even operations are powerfully influenced by these style differences. This can be an asset, of course . . . the integration of a male perspective and a female perspective. But often a husband and wife get stuck because they do not recognize the dynamic that is going on.

One of the most interesting of these dynamics between a husband and a wife who are both entrepreneurs is how they make decisions. One way I sum it up is that men make the first best decision, but women seek out the best-best decision. In the fashion of Lady Justice (where the blindfold represents impartiality), women want to look at all sides of an issue before deciding anything. They value everyone's opinion in the process of moving toward a decision. They may have a strong opinion themselves, but like the blind Lady, they are willing to stay impartial until they have gathered enough information from others. Men on the other hand seek to move the organization along as swiftly as possible. Regardless of everyone's view, men tend to value the efficiency of getting to the answer quickly. If a man has an opinion, dialogue with others is not always to merely gather information, but to persuade others toward his point of view.

How does this dynamic work when a husband/wife team needs to make decisions together? If they understand each other well, then the decision-making dynamic is powerful. If they don't, then each party can feel very misunderstood. For example, if the wife is gathering information from her husband regarding some aspect of the business, then she may initiate a discussion with her husband. He often doesn't hear that she wants to discuss the subject. Rather he hears that she wants him to make a decision. Therefore he tells her his decision and considers the discussion completed. She leaves unfulfilled because she wants to toss ideas around before a decision is made. Later when the husband's decision is not carried out, the husband may feel frustrated because he thought a decision had been made. Sound familiar? It's because women tend to have discussions and men tend to go strait to decisions.

When a husband and wife work together there is the potential to create a strong leadership for their organization. When a husband recognizes that his wife needs an impartial discussion with a variety of options before deciding, she feels understood and more inclined to move toward decisive action.

When a wife recognizes that her husband has a need to get things done as efficiently as possible, she can refocus her energy onto solutions, even if she would like just a little more discussion.

Lady Liberty represents this principle of the combined talent and energy of an entrepreneurial couple. That is, a woman was chosen to represent America rather than a conquering male warrior, because of the desire to represent our country as welcoming immigrants (i.e. ". . . give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"). Lady liberty is carrying a torch in her hand, not a sword, symbolizing the enlightenment of democracy that shines out to the world. She holds the Declaration of Independence in the other hand as evidence that we are all created equal. On her ankle is a chain that is broken, representing freedom from oppression. Yet the statue is enormous, representing strong and powerful leadership and even domination in the world.

In other words, when making a business decision an entrepreneurial couple can combine the wife's strengths and the husband's strengths, and may just be what the business needs to keep its competitive edge in the marketplace. Just as Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants, the wife can welcome a variety of options and possible solutions to a problem, weighing those options impartially just as Lady Justice does. Lady Liberty also represents decision making in that she is holding the Declaration of Independence or the law of the land, just as the husband's strength is to get the decision made and follow it with action, as is implied by the sword that Lady Justice holds. In either case, whether it be the husband's or the wife's decision-making strategy, the goal is a fair decision, something both Ladies stand tall for.

To be sure many women entrepreneurs have the same decision-making qualities as men do. And there are male entrepreneurs who carefully weigh options before deciding. However, it is the interaction between men and women where you see the tendency to lean toward the more traditional roles. If you work with your spouse, you probably know what I am talking about. Now take this awareness and use it to the fullest to take your enterprise to a new height and enlighten the world with your success.

Beat divorce statistics: Communicate as mate, not business partner

Friday, July 07, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

I got a call this week from a journalist (Business Week) wanting information on entrepreneurial couples who face divorce. When journalists call for an interview I get a queasy feeling in my stomach. I'm not worried about a Sixty- Minutes-Expose where I'll say something so embarrassing that the whole nation will think I'm ignorant. My concern is that there are the inevitable questions about statistics. As we all know statistics are often about as confusing and useful as software manuals written by Korean engineers and translated into English.

It's not that I can't reel off statistics with the best of them. I am a researcher after all. I have graduate degrees . . . two of them! But when it comes to statistics about families in business, or entrepreneurial couples, the numbers are thin. The SBA does not keep statistics on these populations. The National Association for Women Business Owners reports on women-owned businesses, but not on couple-owned businesses. The most fascinating thing about this lack of information is that it is estimated that over half of the gross national product comes from family owned firms and half of American works in them! So where are the numbers?

To make matters worse this particular journalist wanted statistics on divorce rates among entrepreneurial couples. Further she wanted to know the statistics on those couples who get divorced and still choose to stay business partners. This is a pretty narrow segment of the population. As exasperating as these requests are for statistics (i.e., I get requests for such interviews about once a month) what this tells me is that there is a rapidly growing interest in the subject. Not just the media, but the public wants to know more about entrepreneurial couples . . . how they do it, how they survive it, how they prosper, how they keep love alive in the fast-paced cutthroat world of the national/international marketplace.

If you also want statistics, I will disappoint you too. I just don't know how many entrepreneurial couples out there get divorced or avoid divorce. However, I can confidently tell how to manage it either way.

First, if your marriage/business partnership has already disintegrated to the point of divorce and you really feel there is no turning back, seek the advice of a competent matrimonial attorney. Your business attorney cannot help you here. A marriage is unlike any other business contract you have entered. Most sophisticated business people are shocked to discover the entanglements created by being married and business partners. Your matrimonial lawyer will help with the marital and business division. But it will be costly and take more time than you could possibly conceive; certainly more time than it took to sign your marriage license at the courthouse.

But let's assume that things have not gone this far awry. In fact, let's assume that you two are happily married and the business is thriving and you would just like to prevent trouble. Simply, the best insurance against divorce is to attend to the relationship first, the business second. Sadly, the opposite seems to be what most entrepreneurial couples do. The pull of the business is strong, immediate and concrete. The pull of the marriage is strong too, but not as immediate and certainly fuzzy. Because it is easier to react and answer the phone call rather than remember to say something loving to one's spouse, the typical entrepreneur opts for responding to business needs first. But the truth is it is pretty simple to maintain a relationship and much more complicated to run a business, so it seems the average entrepreneur could work both into their hectic schedule.

Business is about competition and marriage is about love. In business the goal is to compete, to win, to make a profit. In marriage there is no goal, but rather a process . . . that of exchanging love. Being loving and receiving love are the basics of a healthy marriage. How much work is love anyway? How much effort is there in telling your spouse he or she is loved? How hard is it to carve out one night a month to go on a date? Is it such an extravagance to bring home flowers for your sweetheart or treat him or her to basketball tickets? Along with all of the other e-mails you respond to each day, would it take so much of your precious work time to send an e-mail of appreciation to your spouse too?

It's not that entrepreneurial couples don't have time for their loved ones. It's that the goal orientation of the business takes over. Always in the competitive mode from dawn to dusk, the entrepreneur ticks one item after another off of their daily agenda. Being loving is not on the list. Accomplishment is. In business the point of any conversation is the bottom line or the close. In a marriage the point of the conversation is rapport, staying emotionally connected with one another, or feeling loved. When there are not only one but two entrepreneurs in the marriage, such as with entrepreneurial couples, the focus can be so much on the business, and on the business mode of communication, that love is left in the dust as the couple races to out distance their competition and create financial independence. With this approach, however, they also risk total independence from each other as well. One day there may be statistics on the number of entrepreneurial couples who end their marriages. But if you don't want to be one of those divorce statistics then immediately implement this simple plan. Put the marriage first by doing one loving thing each day for your spouse. You can do battle and conquer all day long in the business world, but at the end of your day, switch modes and have a conversation about nothing at all with your spouse. Don't search for the bottom line. Don't anticipate the close. Instead hold her hand, look into his eyes, talk a little, and congratulate yourself on how lucky you are to have a business partner who is the love of your life.


Can competition at work cost you your marriage?

Thursday, March 02, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


Toni and Vance were really startled by how quickly their marriage was disintegrating after they started their small business together. They loved and enjoyed each other tremendously before they opened their shop but after working together for less than a year their relationship was tense and loving communication had ground to a painful halt. They considered that the stress of a start-up was getting to the two of them. They took a short vacation to the coast to get away from it all and found that they could indeed enjoy each other again. Yet when they returned to work, the tension started to build again. Why couldn't they keep the positive feelings alive?

Working together long hours to make a new business successful certainly can be a reason that a marriage starts to fail, but there's more to this problem than most young or even seasoned entrepreneurs take into consideration. The major reason entrepreneurial couples begin to experience the loss of love in their relationship is that the worlds of work and home are radically different in many ways. Think about it. The world of work is where we kick into high gear; where we drive ourselves to succeed; where we thrive on competition; where we want to express our talents in concrete ways such as producing a sale or a piece of art. The world of home, on the other hand is where we seek comfort, love and safety; where we nurture our loved ones and want their nurturing; where we kick back instead of into high gear.

There are similarities between these two worlds such as the facts that both require attending to details; that both require teamwork; and that both require problem solving. But the essential difference that can lead to marital failure is that work is the world of competition and home is the world of nurturing. All of us look forward to relaxing at home at the end of a hard day of competition in the work world. We want to regale our families with our accomplishments, our "coups," but after that we really want to take off our suits of armor and put on something more vulnerable.

When a couple works together both at home and at work, they can become confused about the roles they should play in both of these worlds. Often the aggressive pull of success and the push of competition eradicate the more subtle pull of love. Only when pushed by a chronic lack of intimacy or the pain of impending divorce, does the couple begin to recognize that they have lost something precious.

How does this problem begin? It's pretty simple really. Most of you picked your spouse because you love her or him, because he or she makes you laugh, because he or she is a "knock out." It is very unlikely that you chose your spouse as you would an employee or a business partner. You probably weren't thinking about money or competition or how to advance your career when you married. And when you set up housekeeping together you probably didn't write up a business plan to make your little love nest profitable.

Neither were you concerned about marketing, designing your letterhead, or the tax ramifications of an LLC. Instead your attention was on how to make the other person happy and how happy they made you feel. You sought affection, emotional support, and intellectual compatibility. Even sharing the household chores was not a major item on your list. Those things got taken care of somehow. And when it came to decision making, sometimes he got his way and sometimes she did.

As marital partners the more easy going style of most American couples will work fine as long as you don't become business partners. When a couple crosses that line into the world of work by becoming business partners, they must be prepared to do some major alterations to the relationship. In marriages where husband and wife both have a career but they don't work together, it is much easier to switch hats from work persona to home persona. You give your spouse a kiss goodbye in the morning and go on your separate ways for the day. You may make a phone call midday to catch up on private matters or just to say hello, but essentially your activities and identity are solidly ensconced in your work world. When you return home, you give your spouse a kiss, change your clothes, do a little catching up on each other's day, and prepare the evening meal together. At home your activities and identity are defined by your home world and your relationships with your spouse and children.

In other words for couples who don't work together, they have an independent identity at work and a partnership identity at home. With career-minded people the work identity is also a leadership one, involving authority for decision making. At home, these same independent leaders switch hats to become equal partners who share in the decision making. This is the norm in most American homes of dual-career couples. The problem arises when these equal home partners go to work with each other, either expecting to be equal partners at work too, or expecting to each be the decision maker as if they worked separately.

When you worked apart you may have enjoyed your spouse's stories of work achievements. You may even have taken pride in how aggressive or decisive your spouse was in his or her career. However, when you work together, that strong aggressive leadership quality may now look like arrogance. The two of you may tangle because you expect to be included in decisions that your spouse has already run with. When you come home at the end of your workday, you may feel that you have had enough of your spouse for one day. You don't desire anymore togetherness if you have to be bullied or ignored.

At least this is how it can go if you don't pay attention to the different roles husbands and wives play in the different worlds of work and home.

The solution first is to acknowledge that these two worlds are very different. Second recognize that daily conscious effort is required on your part to maintain a harmonious relationship with your spouse. If the two of you enjoy being equal partners at home, and wish to try being equal partners at work, then consciously design a work partnership where decision making is equal on at least the major decisions. This makes some things move more slowly, but it can be very effective for keeping love alive. If you are comfortable being home partners, but really prefer one person leadership at work, then acknowledge that too and set it up that way. No sense in trying to be equal partners at work, when one or both of you would gladly defer decision making responsibility to the other spouse. If you are somewhere in between these two styles, play with the structure for awhile until you discover what works in your marriage/business partnership.

Bringing competition home is probably the worst thing you can do for a marriage. Keep competition and achievement needs at work. When you work with your spouse in your own enterprise, keep in mind that you will be crossing the competition barrier daily. It is hard to stay kind and loving with the one you are competing with. We tend to take competition personally. The following are some ways to diffuse the tension of competition between spouses:

  • Set up separate work areas within the business.
  • Reward each other often for your individual successes.
  • Take breaks from each other often. Make a clean break from work at the end of the day. This latter recommendation is vital. Do not discuss work at all at home if your business requires that both spouses be leaders and you are both highly independent and headstrong (sound like anyone you know?).

The most important thing to remember when you work together is why you chose your spouse in the first place. This is someone you love and trust and want to spend the rest of your life with. These qualities are not bad either for the kind of person you want as someone to help you build your dream in business.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Business Consultant is the author of ENTERPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or www.kmarshack.com

Do your and your spouse bicker at work and at home?

Thursday, January 06, 2000




By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.


"Oh yeah! I used to work with my wife, but not anymore. All we did was fight."

"We're great business partners, but at home we bicker constantly. What's wrong?"

"Work with my husband? Never! He never listens."


Bicker, bicker, bicker. Is this the price you pay when you work with your spouse? All too often this seems to be the case, but it doesn't have to be. If you understand conflict and develop strategies to de-stress problem situations, you and your partner can have the best of both worlds: a fantastic marriage and a successful business team. Here are some of tips for resolving the bickering.

Remember that the differences between the two of you are probably some of the reasons that made you fall in love with each other.

There may be many reasons for conflict, but a common one for spouses who work together is that you know each other too well. Remember when you first met, first fell in love, decided to get married? You probably didn't focus at the time on everything that you didn't like about your new love. In fact, you may have never noticed anything that big, but instead viewed those differences as thrilling. But over time, the differences between the two of you surface more and more. What once was ignored or even viewed as endearing is now a pain in the neck. Or your spouse may have qualities that worked well in the home when you didn't work together, but in the office they seem to make the two of you tangle.

One way to get past the bickering is to remind yourself that you love and admire this person. Your spouse has many great qualities that contributed to your choosing him or her as a spouse and a business partner. Focus on those qualities, not the behavior that annoys you.

People change over time, so bickering may be a sign that it's time to renegotiate your agreements (martial and business).


You can't possibly know everything about another person before marriage or even before becoming business partners. Who knows what qualities will emerge on a person as they enter new territory (which we are constantly doing throughout life)? Our basic personalities probably don't change that much, but how we apply our personalities to the experiences in life does shape and define us. Your spouse may be showing you a side of him or herself that you never

knew existed. Be careful not to resist this new information because it is different. Give yourself time to adjust to the change. Talk about it with you spouse. Evaluate how to incorporate the change into your marriage agreement and business partnership agreement. Change may be painful, but it is the very nature of living things to change.

Entrepreneurial couples should spend as much time cultivating joy in their relationships as they do focusing on the bottom line in their businesses.

It's just a fact. All of us work more than we would like to. Even when you love the work you do, you should strive to find balance among the other important parts of your life, such as your relationships with your spouse, family, friends and yourself.

Entrepreneurial couples are notorious for being all work and no play, and therefore the relationship suffers. Think about it. If you are bickering with your spouse/business partner, could it be because you have had no quality time lately? Or could it be because you are sleep-deprived? Or could it be that it's been a long time since you laughed?

Take the time to set your priorities and follow them. There will always be another phone call to answer and another deadline to meet that will draw you away from balancing your priorities. But you don't get that many chances to restore a faltering relationship. When the love, trust and respect is gone, it usually leads to divorce.

Be true to yourself and offer the same to your spouse/partner.

Entrepreneurial couples seldom have formal education or training in the art of living their unique lifestyle. So, through trial and error they come up with a system to get the job done, and they do so admirably, but the job is all that gets done. Sometimes the work is not very creative. Often the excitement and challenge that brought them into business wears thin. The result is a successful business that produces a good income for its owners, but leaving no room for personal and professional development. Then the bickering starts again.

It seems to be true that when we are bored, we bicker. When this happens, it is time to take stock of how the business is organized. Is the business truly a reflection of your talents, or is it running you? Are the spouses/business partners really suited to the jobs they currently have, or have they outgrown them?

If you are really being true to yourself and your partnership, duties should be assigned according to the best suited to the task. In other words, fully use your talents. For example, if the founder of the business doesn't have good people skills, perhaps the spouse should be president. That way the founder can keep doing what he or she does best, invent things for example, while the more people-oriented spouse can run the business and manage employees and customers.

Be full-time partners at home and at work.

Husbands and wives who work together often slip into efficiently getting things done, but in a hierarchical, military model. Research shows that copreneurs opt for the husband-boss/wife-employee model more often than other entrepreneurial or dual-career couples. Instead of equal partners, these couples slip into the traditional chain of command by which only one person can be the boss.

One day my husband was particularly exasperated with me and confronted me with this question, "Just who is the boss around here anyway?" I was startled, because I thought he knew! Taking a moment to compose myself I replied, "We both are."

A husband and wife, whether partnering at home as parents or partnering at the business, are both full-fledged adults who contribute to the joint venture. They both should take full responsibility for the outcome of the venture. In other words you are both 100 percent boss and 100 percent responsible.

I believe bickering for these couples is a sign that one partner or the other is feeling powerless in the relationship or business. If the decision-making power is vested with one person, but the other spouse still has major responsibilities but no authority, you have ripe territory for passive-aggressive behavior-bickering.

If you and your spouse are bickering about nothing in particular, or the same argument comes up over and over again, or you are bickering now that you work together but you didn't bicker before, or most important, you bicker but you never remember what it's about, take stock of the relationship and ask what needs to change. The simple answer is not to work together, but then you might be missing the most creative team you'll ever be a part of. Plus, you may miss those early warning signs that the marriage and/or the business plan need to be revamped.

Instead, take the bickering as growing pains and be grateful that you have a spouse who is so important to you that you care enough to get mad about their idiosyncrasies.