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Articles - Conflict and Confrontation in Family - Business

To avoid power struggles at work, put away fears and egos

Thursday, November 01, 2001



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

Today, much is being written about the psychological differences between men and women. While there are differences, some of them profound, there are also many similarities. And when it comes to answering the question of "What do women want?" the answer is simple. They pretty much want what men want.

In a family firm, especially one where husband and wife are co-owners, there are bound to be power struggles. Women as well as men want to feel in charge of their lives. They want to feel valuable, appreciated. We call this concept "Power." Even children need a sense of personal power, of having some say in the direction of their lives.

A husband who asks, "How do I get my wife to do what I ask her to do at work?" is probably engaged in a power struggle with his wife. Both are worried that if they don't get their way, they will lose something (perhaps power over their own destinies.)

The solution is simple. Put your fears and your ego away. Ask yourself, how am I interfering in her sense of power? How can I include her in the decision-making process? How can I feel powerful and still give my spouse room to feel the same? In other words, look for a win-win solution.

Couples who work together need to develop a structure for communicating and decision-making that works for them. If you have a consensus model at home, it is difficult to implement a hierarchical model at work. If a husband and wife are used to making decisions together for the family, this is likely to be the best style at work as well. It is confusing and leads to power struggles when a wife is an equal partner at home, but must answer to her boss/husband at work.

Some copreneurs (couple who own, manage and share responsibility for an enterprise) have resolved these problems in creative ways. For example, one solution to power struggles at work is to have separate domains for husband and wife to work in. This way, neither husband nor wife has to answer to the other for the daily operations of their departments.

Another possible solution is to have differing levels of decision-making. Some levels of decision-making in the business require consensus by husband and wife. Other levels of decision-making can be handled by one spouse or the other. And still other levels are strictly the responsibility of the spouses managing that department.

In order to implement a successful plan for decision-making and prevent power struggles, a husband and wife need to attend to their personal relationship first. Relationships based on fear don't work. There must be respect, love and support to maintain a healthy relationship. There must be room for individual differences. There must be an honest assessment of each other's strengths so that duties at work can be assigned to produce the most efficient and successful outcome.

Too often copreneurs rely on traditional gender roles to define their duties at work and at home. While this may work for some couples, it can produce power struggles for other couples. If you are not a traditional couple at what makes you that that style is appropriate for work? Or perhaps the traditional model worked for you when you were younger and raising your children, but now the kids are grown, you need a more egalitarian style. As you establish your decision-making structure, consider your optimal marital style, keeping in mind your current values about family, marriage and work.

Jewish families have a tradition that helps them keep their perspective about family and work. On the right side of the entry door of a Jewish home, you will notice a small decorative box. This box holds a Mezuzah, a message from the Bible. The message is a reminder to family members that each day as they return home from work, the center of their lives is the family. In other words, all of one's accomplishments in the world of work have little meaning if they can't be shared with one's family.

Successful family firms and copreneurial venture seem to share this value also. There is a recognition that men and women, husband and wives really want the same thing. To be sure, they want success at work. They want to know that they are in charge of their destinies. But most important, they want to know that their accomplishments are appreciated by the ones they love and who they love.

So the next time you are engaged in a power struggle with your spouse, take a look at how you have been addressing your priorities. If you business decisions are coming at the expense of your intimate relationships, your spouse may be fighting for the survival of the family. Reorient yourself to family first and your business decisions will have the full support of your loved ones.