Throughout our life, we all inevitably meet someone we don’t get along with. In our private life, we can simply avoid these individuals. However, when toxic relationships seep into the workplace, the situation can become detrimental to the business as a whole.

The workplace setting magnifies the details of our relationships. In some cases, existing irritations are emphasised. In other cases, we become disillusioned about a person’s true nature.

In either case, our natural instinct is to avoid conflict as much as possible. However, doubling up on communication is the best solution to smooth over complicated relationships, even if it means bringing in a third party to help facilitate the conversation.

In this episode of WiFB Conversations, Amy Katz and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss difficult relationships in the workplace, their effect on the family business and how to deal with them.

This episode of Conversations with Women in Family Business is co-produced with Amy Katz, founder of coaching-business Daughters in Charge.


A: Some relationships within the family deteriorate in the workplace setting.  

They can become so chronic and rage-producing that you begin to question whether or not you should stay. This relationship deeply affects not only your work life but also your home life. It can become an obsession. You wonder how to deal with this person when you can’t stand each other. It gets to the point where other people notice.

In a family business, working with difficult people is quite different than in a non-family business.

R: We have control over what we do, but we can’t control others, their reactions or their influence on relationships in the workplace.

Even the most competent and professional family business can be irrational. In a family business, there’s a limbo between driving the business forward and managing the established dynamics between family members.

When you start working with people with whom you have a relationship outside of the business, there are a few scenarios that can play out.

In the first, the working relationship emphasises an existing issue.

The work environment is a test for any relationship. At work, you have to criticise and push each other. You might have to ask the other person to do tasks that you know will go into their private time.

There’s already some irritation in that relationship, and it is magnified in the workplace.

In the second scenario, you’re taken by surprise. After you start working with this person, their behaviour becomes unrecognisable. It’s difficult to accept that this behaviour might be part of their personality rather than being a personal attack against you.

In a family business, we assume that we already know how the other person will react because we know each other. That’s wrong.

A: There’s the phrase, “Familiarity can lead to contempt.”

R: The lines are blurry. Love and hate are very close to each other, and you become aware of that in a family business. You’re always treading a fine line.

The family business setup is flocked with possibilities for difficult relationships. There are expectations that are not being met, and dysfunctional relationships are being magnified within the work environment.

In a family business, difficult working relationships are worse than in other workplaces because disputes are more personal.

We see this quite frequently. It’s very sad, and it spoils people’s ambitions and visions for the company by sucking away their energy.

A: When you enter into the family business, you may already know that you have a strained relationship with someone, but you don’t appreciate the depth of that strain and how it might affect you.

On the surface, it seems that you can get along with that person. Once you start working together, you question whether or not you can continue.

I did not grow up in a family business, but I have worked for two friends. In each case, we were surprised by each other’s behaviour.

It takes some adjustment to get feedback about your behaviour, especially when giving feedback has not been the nature of your relationship. This may be truer when you work for someone inside of your immediate family.

I have worked with women who are quite surprised when they start working with a parent. They see their parent in action or not acting in the way that they should.

R: It’s a massive illusion buster. The parent-child relationship is largely based on certain illusions that we hold on to for as long as possible.

To have a positive family relationship, you need to give each other the benefit of the doubt. That’s the only way it’s going to work. If you dig too deep in any relationship, you can wreck it.

We’re all deeply flawed. That’s why running a family business is such an art form.

I don’t recommend it for every family. In a family business, you are confronted with realities that you would never have found out if you hadn’t started working together.

You sacrifice the illusion around that person. Though some surprises are positive, they’re not always pleasant, but that’s the sacrifice you make.

A lot of prolonged toxic relationships exist because we don’t admit how hurt we were by the fact that we were wrong about the relationship.

Being wrong about someone in the family can throw a harsh light on how we view ourselves. That’s one of the reasons why family feuds can become so huge.

A: This may be true in non-family settings, but it doesn’t have the same force.

Sometimes, there is one particular person with whom you trigger each other.  The two of you are tangled, and this can erode whatever relationship was there. It becomes a chronic and painful irritant that begins to take over how you feel about work.

If people can learn to handle that one challenging relationship, they will be able to survive more comfortably in the family business.

R: We sometimes take a lot of that toxic relationship on ourselves. A bad relationship will make us insecure. That one person who doesn’t like you can have a devastating impact, and that one negative relationship can eradicate everything else.

This has so much to do with self-confidence. Any change you want to see in the relationship starts with yourself. We feel guilty about the relationship, but it doesn’t often translate into a sense of empowerment that you can change the relationship.

The magic formula is to break the pattern. If you use reverse psychology to throw off the other person, they’ll stop falling back into those patterns. You can meet each other on a different plane again.

Thinking that you have a toxic relationship with someone is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Breaking that pattern has proven very successful for me in the past.

A: That link to self-confidence is very important. Some women cope by defining their role in conflict-free areas, such as getting involved in the community or joining a professional association.

Finding opportunities without that family member can be restorative, particularly around self-confidence. It can give you the opportunity for influence without beating your head against the wall.

There are times when you have to determine whether the relationship is toxic or if you’ve just become the person who’s fighting the battle for everyone.

Sometimes, a woman can be a lightning rod for unhealthy relationships. You have to determine what your responsibility is to others. You have to determine if this individual needs to be confronted or if you just didn’t like them in the sandbox and don’t like them now.   

R: We all have our own personal sandbox experiences. This speaks to the complexity of what we’re talking about.

It’s an emotional minefield because it’s flocked with compromise. You’re compromising your position in the organisation by either taking too much of a leadership role and confronting the difficult person or by internalising everything and taking it personally.

You should never be the lightning rod. That lightning rod should be a third party adviser, coach or therapist who works with organisational culture.

When we’re raised in family businesses, we’re raised to be entrepreneurial, work hard and make sacrifices.

The fundamental statement that you make when you build a business is that you know better than the other person. That confidence has to be there, or you’d never start the business.

You’re convinced that you’ve got something, and you manage to convince generations after you that they’re equally good at this. This leads to a common mentality in the family business that you’ll fix everything yourself.

When there’s a difficult relationship, you’re better off having that external conversation with someone privately to gain some perspective.

It’s easy to get locked in your feelings. Sometimes, the solution can be deceivingly simple, but you don’t accept that someone from the outside might have the solution, and you unnecessarily take that away from yourself.

There are certain situations where it’s a good idea to bring in someone else, even if it’s not a professional. It could be someone from another family business or a peer who understands the situation.

A: That would be a great solution if a family member can recognise that the situation is solvable. Sometimes, a third party can be a board of advisors.

Sometimes, there’s leakage. A woman may feel that she’s responsible for a situation, but this is usually evidence of something larger. If it’s become so deep and so chronic for her, it must be that way for the other person, as well.

That’s where we tie into the culture of the business. If it can work, it’s important to resolve it. Other times, it might affect someone so much that they need to leave.

R: That’s discouraging, and it’s a drag on your energy. If you’re an empathetic person, you will never be entirely capable of ignoring that elephant in the room. Even if everybody else loves you, you will naturally focus on the onenegative criticism. It’s human nature, and it takes a while to become immune to that.

It hurts more when it’s a family member. There’s this unspoken rule of having each other’s backs. There should be more trust in our organisation than there would be between strangers, so it’s extra painful when these things happen.

I don’t think that there’s anything that can’t be solved. When you want to leave because of that, you’ve omitted the biggest opportunity.

I attended a family dynamics workshop with Professor Joseph Astrakhan’s, one of the foremost experts in the family business field. He taught me that we form patterns in our relationships, and understanding those patterns is important.

Sometimes, the thing that you don’t want to do is what you have to do to make the problem go away.

When you have a dysfunctional communication with someone, your natural reaction is to give them space, but the real solution is to double up on communication.

There’s just no such thing as too much communication. No one’s ever felt like they communicate too well with someone.

To preserve your own energy, you have this intuition to move away from a situation that is too dicey. Subconsciously, you start to avoid that person instead of talking to them regularly and rebuilding that ability to communicate.

A: Just as it’s not easy to confront someone, it’s also not easy to avoid them. Repairing that relationship is vital. If you can’t do it yourself, ask for help, either directly or indirectly.

Acknowledge that the situation is not sustainable, and do your best to resolve it. Having a healthy family takes work. It doesn’t just happen.

About Amy Katz and Daughters in Charge: Amy Katz Daughters in Charge

Amy Katz is an executive coach and social psychologist whose business, Daughters in Charge, focuses exclusively on supporting women in family businesses.  She is the author of Daughters in Charge: Learning to Lead in Your Family’s Business.