Family Biz: 5 Conflict Resolution Tips for Spouses in Business

When partners in love decide to become partners in business, conflicts are bound to arise. Whether they disagree on the name of the company, who manages the money, or the best time to talk company business, what’s at stake is not just the bottom line, but the marriage. Husbands and wives need to create rules they stand by before they get the business up and running, says Jane Hilburt-Davis, founder of Key Resources, L.L.C., a Cambridge, Massachusetts—based family business consulting company. “Most copreneurs fail when they don’t have a process to resolve conflict,” she says. So, to stave off business blunders, this week on Family Business, Hilburt-Davis gives her five tips for conflict resolution.

Keep boundaries clear. Make sure that each person has a title, role, and responsibilities that are spelled out and very clear. Clarify the job descriptions. In a start-up, everybody does everything. But with couples, that is where a lot of the conflict happens, says Hilburt-Davis, author of Consulting to Family Business. It is critical that they don’t step on each others toes. Establish each person’s job function, compensation, and title on industry standards and review it later.

Agree on the value and vision of the company. They may agree on the values, but disagree on vision. Have a strategic planning meeting early on to decide the goals for the business in two months, two years, and 10 years. “If they are not in agreement on that, I would caution them to not go into business together,” says Hilburt-Davis.

Decide how to break stalemates. “It is very important that–if they have a disagreement and they probably will–they decide what process they will use to come up with a plan,” she says. “That is where couples will get stuck. They get into an argument and don’t have a process for settling it to move to an action plan.” Whether they call in a neutral expert to make the decision or decide that one of them should act as an expert on certain subjects, it is important that they build in a process for conflict resolution.

Create a board of advisers. Even if they are a small company, have two or three trusted experts in their field–not competitors–who they meet with quarterly or semi-annually who would function as the board of advisers, says Hilburt-Davis. Copreneurs have a higher risk of conflict and stalemate than family businesses because it is just the two of them. A board of advisers is important for any company, but they are especially important for copreneurs because the advisers are trusted people that a husband and wife can turn to when they’re in a stalemate.

Set up rules for separating family and business. Keep healthy boundaries between the family and the business. Some couples say they will never drive to or from work together because they need the time alone, the time to transition from business to family. Another rule some couples advocate is to not talk business at home or on vacation. I don’t tell copreneurs what the rules should be but I advise them to have rules. It doesn’t matter what rules you choose, just try to develop time away from both your partner and your business.

For more information about couples in business read:

Recipe For Success: Copreneurs blend their knowledge and resources to produce $20 million company

Natural Solutions: Copreneurs Bring the Back Office Out Front

Sleeping With Your Business Partner

The Couples in Business Network