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The Role of In-Laws

By John L. Ward, Ph.D.

Many business families work hard to embrace the in-laws fully and sincerely. Despite their best efforts, it never seems to work out quite as idealistically as they hope. Consider the following prospective.

Grown Ins

  • We really want to include you, the spouses, as equals. We feel that’s important to our continuing success as a business family.
  • We want you to speak up, to disagree, to point out our blind spots, and to add diversity to our thinking.
  • Married Ins Thank you. But that’s not completely realistic. We don’t have the same parents and didn’t grow up in the same culture.
  • Yes, but you have a right to feel defensive of your customs and way of thinking. It’s natural for you to hear each other more intensely.

 


The most wise and secure in-laws we have met have taught us, by their example, a few valuable principles to consider.

  • Less 20% Rule: In-laws are advised to speak 20% less than others in meetings; contribute 20% less to decision-making; and speak with 20% less conviction. This rule shows the respect and modesty most families want, even if they claim differently.
  • Plus 20% Rule: In-laws defend the family and individual family members 20% more than others in the family to outsiders and to members of the family. This rule helps protect in-laws from being perceived as critical. It’s a response to the reality that blood is thicker...
  • Spouse Confronts Rule: In-laws insist that if there is a conflict or grievance original family members raise it with their siblings or their parents. It’s unfair to ask an in-law to speak for the couple’s concerns.
  • Balanced Time Rule: In-laws save their strongest voice to insist that the families of each spouse, both sides, get equal time and attention, if that’s desired. There’s great likelihood that, otherwise, the business owning side of the family will naturally absorb the higher priority.

The idea of this column is that grown-ins and married-ins are different for fundamental reasons. Families, well intentioned, wish to assume them equal. But that often leads to missteps and misunderstandings that are better avoided by prudence, warmly and respectfully offered.

 

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