Telling the truth is difficult under the best of circumstances. But in challenging times like the economy we now face, speaking the truth can be hard but necessary in any business. People have to be told that they are losing their jobs, or much anticipated new initiatives have to be put on hold.

In a family firm, speaking the truth in difficult times is even harder because family members may be involved. What if your son just isn’t cut out for working in the business and would be better off elsewhere? What if your niece just isn’t contributing enough or has made some costly mistakes, despite her obvious talent?

We’re often afraid to tell the truth in a family business because doing so can fray the family fabric. We fear not just harming a business relationship but also permanently damaging a family relationship.

How to handle such fears? Speak the truth, but do it in love. Avoid being destructive—don’t confront family members with arrogance or in anger. Show that you value them and are committed to their success, whether it’s inside or outside of the family business.

Having clear expectations about family employment, supported by open discussions in family meetings and a written Family Employment Policy helps the truth to be heard. Even though family members KNOW they can be fired for poor performance, it still is a major shock.

We suggest psychologist Ellen Frankenberg’s article on family employment, “When a Pink Slip Lands Close to Home.” Another helpful tool is our own “Code of Conduct for Our Meetings.” This offers guidelines for communicating the truth in love.

It Takes Practice

Speaking the truth in love is both an attitude and a skill. I’ve learned a lot from one of my favorite authors, Patrick Lencioni. I heartily recommend his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. In it, he points out that a team needs to embrace conflict and social discomfort, which is really the same thing as speaking the truth in love.

Speaking the truth in love is an essential management skill that needs to be developed and practiced. If you learn to do it at home, you can transfer that skill fairly easily to the workplace.

And don’t put off telling the truth. As one family business owner said recently, “You either go through the pain now or you go through the pain later. I think it’s better to go through the pain upfront, because you WILL go through the pain.”


Henry Landes

Founder, Senior Family Business Advisor

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