Being in the family business isn’t as easy as many think…I often feel like I’m in a fishbowl — with everyone eager to judge and test me. They say it’s lonely at the top, but it’s also lonely being the son or daughter of the “top.” Who can I talk to? Who can I trust?

Young family successors to the family business are in a unique situation. It’s hard to imagine any working arrangement more complex — and few more stressful.

Stress comes from being in conflicting roles and constantly coping with mixed perceptions and expectations. Consider the following successor dilemmas:

Do my parents give me too much feedback or not enough (or is the feedback on the right issues)?

Parents hope for (near) perfect children, often resulting in unrealistic expectations and frequent criticism. At the same time successors intensely seek approval and validation from their close relatives. Most successors believe they have to work harder than anyone else. But they also often wonder where they stand. One third generation president of a company with $180 million annual sales had served effectively for a decade, but still wondered, “What does my Dad think of me as an executive?”

Family members’ conversations often drift into non-work topics. As one successor frustratedly put it, “I wish my aunt and father would just see me as any other employee. I’m embarrassed by some of the things they say to me in public!”

Am I a peer or a privileged owner?

It’s nice to have comfortable peer relationships at work. But can the boss’ children ever really be peers? They are often perceived to be spies or tattletales.

People can use them to “get word” to the top managers. Peers can be jealous of family members’ privilege. For family successors, developing solid working relationships is sometimes hard because it is hard to figure out who you can trust.

Am I a subordinate or a boss?

Most non-family managers realize that they will someday (hopefully) work for the “kid.” Consequently, they can sometimes be patronizing. It’s hard to get honest performance feedback.

Others in the organization are worried that the successor’s career path will unfairly affect theirs. Successors don’t know how hard to push for promotions.

Am I loyal or aloof?

People sometimes like to gossip and even complain about where they work. Often these comments can be useful information to a future executive. But does the successor have the moral responsibility to pass this information on to top family leadership? Or do they keep it to themselves for future reference? Or do they tell people to not say such things in their presence?

Am I worthy or lucky?

Besides a question on the mind of their employees, young successors know that their outside-of-business social friends and others in their community wonder about what was earned versus birthright. Usually family business successors grow in income and wealth faster than their early adult friends.

Sometimes inheritors feel guilty about their seemingly privileged condition. Some develop bad habits of lending money indiscriminately or of being too often the overgenerous host. How does a successor really know what he or she earned?

These issues often become more troubling if successors don’t have a well-thought-through career progression. If they never had significant, successful, outside work experience, these dilemmas are harder to resolve. If they are given jobs in the family business that didn’t exist before their arrival, perceptions and stress intensify.

These issues, though, just come with the family business territory. The healthy successors we know accept them. They take proactive steps to address the inevitable stresses. Their efforts include:

  • Seek empathetic allies “outside” of the business. Some join organizations of presidents or would-be-presidents. Some frequently travel to visit other family businesses. Some meet regularly for lunch or breakfast with two or three others in their community in similar situations. Some join university-based family business networks. Some thoughtful companies have one of the outside directors on the board serve as mentor and confidant.
  • Put it all in perspective with reflection. Several successors we know have told us that they find journal writing to be a valuable way to gather thoughts and confidence. Many successors are active readers of self-help books (e.g, I’m OK; You’re OK) and books helping them understand their situation (e.g., Seasons in a Man’s Life).
  • Act. Take chances and do things. Even if you stick your neck out, you give yourself the chance to learn and to demonstrate your abilities. Other employees respect action more than self-pity. While older family members may be troubled by your aggressiveness, remember what one successor told us, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than seek permission.”
  • Earn self-respect and self-confidence elsewhere. Many successors gain clear feedback and unbiased recognition by taking active roles in other organizations. Whether a civic group, trade association or a hobby club, they enter and achieve without handicap or privilege.
  • Break the pace. Probably the technique to reduce stress used by successors more than any other is regular exercise. Hobbies and music also work well to reduce stress.

Understanding and accepting the normal complications of being a family member in a family business helps lessen the tension. Outside experience and perspective can pronounce the benefits and advantages of a family business career — that usually more than compensates for the problems. Even so, stress is an expected consequence. Learning to cope with stress is an important skill for young successors in family firms.

But there is no substitute for a fulfilling job and an exciting work environment. As one family business successor told us recently, “If the overall environment isn’t positive, isn’t carrying you, it won’t work. No advice can force it to be positive.”