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Articles - Successful Management Techniques in the Family - Business

Are you Mom and Pop in the Office?

Thursday, February 05, 1998




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


Fran and Larry are corporate farmers. They have a large operation that grew from one farm, when Larry took over the business from his father, to three farms and a retail outlet, plus several related agricultural investments. They continue to expand north and south along the fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest.

Many of the employees have worked for Larry and Fran since the time of Larry’s father, but most are new hires. As the business expanded, the company changed from a small "Mom and Pop" operation to a sophisticated multi-level enterprise, racking up impressive national and international sales. This growth required hiring more technical, sales and even marketing personnel to help prepare the business for the next millennium.

Both Larry and Fran have college degrees and are proud of bringing their agricultural business into the computer age. They have talented, well trained farm hands, mechanics, foremen, sales people, office staff and managers, who are helping the business grow in a healthy and competitive way. They have one son in college, studying farm management and a daughter already working full time in the retail outlet. They thought they covered everything when they took the business over from Larry’s dad and began moving into the future. What they had not counted on was human nature.

The element of human nature that I refer to is the tendency of employees to relate to an entrepreneurial couple as "Mom" and "Pop." You may never have considered this phenomenon before, but if you are a member of a husband/wife entrepreneurial team, you probably know what I mean. And if you work for an entrepreneurial couple, I am sure that at least once, you have referred to them as "Mom" and "Pop," if not to their faces, certainly to other employees.

Some entrepreneurial couples do not mind the stereotyping. They enjoy the role of parenting their extended business family. They even refer to the company as "one big happy family." If employees do not mind being treated like children, even indulged children, this is not a problem. However, problems arise when the transference creates more unpleasant connections. Not all employees nor employers have fond memories of their childhoods and they may have unresolved issues between themselves and their parents. These unresolved issues can erupt between employer and employee when the setup is a "Mom" and "Pop" business.

With Larry and Fran there were several signals that they were being treated like parents by employees, even when they themselves did not overtly acknowledge their role as "Mom" and "Pop." Just because they are a husband/wife team, and have grown children involved in the business, employees infer a parent/child relationship. For example, employees often come to Fran about problems they are having with Larry, even though Fran has no authority in their area. They request of her to intercede.

In another situation, Larry found one employee seeking his approval for nearly every aspect of his job. Even though this manager is quite capable, and came highly recommended, he seemed to be unable to operate independently. This sounds typical of an insecure child who needs Dad’s praise in order to feel loved.

A third example really brought the problem home for Larry and Fran. The couple noticed that whenever they openly disagreed about something at work, such as at a meeting with their managers, the employees involved would immediately become quiet. Where once there had been a feedback session among owners and managers, there were now intimidated children waiting to see how the fight between "Mom" and "Pop" would end.

The solution to these interesting problems is to bring the situation out into the open. I find that entrepreneurial couples who recognize that there will be "Mom" and "Pop" transference at the business between themselves and employees, are in a much better position to diffuse it. For example, Fran can gently remind the employee who seeks her protection from "Pop" that the employee is a capable adult that they hired to handle the job. Therefore, there is every reason to believe that Larry will be respectful and solution oriented regardless of the problem brought to him by the employee.

Larry may need more in depth discussions with the manager who constantly seeks his approval. Depending upon the personalities involved, Larry may even be able to bring the issue of a father-son parallel out in the open. For example, he might say, "You know, just because I’m the owner, doesn’t mean I know everything. It’s not like I am your dad or anything and you have to be perfect to please me. Relax and do your best. That’s what I pay you for."

In the board room, I think Larry and Fran can be quite direct with their executive team. They may even have some training with their managers on the subject of the psychodynamics of business systems run by husband/wife teams, so when the transference blooms they can go right to the heart of the matter. For example, when an argument opens between Fran and Larry, they can look at the intimidated children/employees and joke, "Don’t worry. We won’t make you choose sides between ‘Mom’ and ‘Pop’."

All businesses are human relationships first and product second. This is not just true of family firms, but is seen more poignantly in businesses where there is an overlap of family or couple system and the business system. Complicating things further is that employees bring lessons from their childhoods and their marriages into the work place and make meaning accordingly of the behavior of entrepreneurial couples. By recognizing this dynamic and developing ways of diffusing the counterproductive interpretations of "Mom" and "Pop", entrepreneurial couples will be leagues ahead of their competitors.

To improve your skill at identifying when this kind of transference is happening, keep in mind these basic presuppositions about couple-owned and family-owned firms.

  1. Most people make psychological meaning of a situation at an emotional level first; a more rational, adult interpretation comes second.
  2. All entrepreneurial couples will be viewed as "Mom" and "Pop" by all employees at some time or another, whether you set it up that way or not.
  3. All of us learned about relationships and teamwork in our families of origin, so it is natural to return to those lessons in a setting that represents a family constellation.
  4. Your creativity is limited if you are playing a role, such as "Mom" or "Pop." Step out of the role and become a fully functioning adult again, and your employee will also.
  5. If you have not resolved problematic relationships in your own family of origin, you will play them out at work, just as your employees do.

Some entrepreneurial couples have tried to solve the "Mom" and "Pop" problem by keeping their personal lives totally separate from their work. Others have opted out of couple entrepreneurship altogether. Still others have gone to the other extreme, where the business becomes their family, and they have no life outside of work. None of these options are necessary, however.

As an entrepreneurial couple, you are both spouses and business partners, sometimes alternating between these roles several times in one day. It is impossible to separate these worlds of home and work, when you work with the one you love. But it is possible to track which role currently is in the foreground. All you really need to do to keep the system humming is to ask yourself two questions:

  • Which role is in the foreground now?
  • Is this the most appropriate role for this context?