For family members to be or rather feel underappreciated in their own family business happens more often than one would think. Unfortunately, it is often the case that family members seem to be inherently bad at showing their true regard or respect for their blood relations’ work. In turn, there is arguably also a heightened sensitivity when it comes to wanting attention or praise from someone who is not only a superior at work but also happens to be one’s father, uncle, or cousin. Farida F. El Agamy is an Attorney-at-Law and the General Manager of the Tharawat Family Business Forum and works with her family. She dives into the controversy that is appreciation in the family business and uncovers the inherent misunderstanding that lies at its core.

The corporate pat on the back

The topic of appreciation in family businesses is often associated with non-family employees who feel that family members are being favoured. The fair treatment of non-family employees is therefore a constant concern in family businesses.

Generally, in HR literature we find discussions on how productivity of teams increases when managers show a genuine interest in their staff, but also how crucial incentives are for talent retention.

Of course, looking at it from a purely business- related perspective, appreciation is largely a matter of office culture and HR regulations coupled with individual management styles. With the right teams and leadership support, much can be achieved, appreciation can be institutionalised and implemented.

We have seen some amazing examples in the MENA region, where family businesses were able to motivate and retain non-family talent through reward schemes, transparent promotion opportunities, and other incentives. However, it is but rarely that we read about appreciation in connection with the plight of family members, as we seem to assume that by being part of a family business a person is automatically privileged and would receive appropriate or even exaggerated compensation, for their work or their contribution to the family.

Appreciation – the missing human factor?

Exploring the issue further, it is a known fact that many young family business members feel a lack of appreciation for their work. Often we hear them complaining that there is unfair competition between members of their own generation and that other family members do not objectively appreciate and recognise their efforts.

In turn, it can be observed that senior family members feel equally underappreciated; they often feel isolated in their decision-making, misunderstood, caught between family members in conflict and blamed by both sides. Hence, there seems to be a issue that needs to be addressed and it should start with two questions: Is the lack of appreciation real and if so, why is it so hard to express appreciation towards members of your family?

The problem with evaluating if a perceived lack of appreciation is real, is that it is an emotional and highly subjective topic. Some people might need more recognition than others; some might take their job satisfaction from completing a project, rather than from a pat on the back by an elder. In family businesses when a person feels undervalued or not recognised, it is in the first instance put off as a sentimental weakness. Decision-making and success is dependent on a very sensitive balance between family members. This balance might at times be kept by a strong leader, or a group of strong leaders, but eventually, it is the sum of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of individuals that determines the sustainability of the system.

Feeling underappreciated can be a creeping, destructive feeling that can lead to an overall sense of negativity. If there is a challenge with appreciation in family businesses, why would it be so difficult to bring about change? After all you are a family, and it certainly should be easier to express your appreciation to someone that is related to you than to a stranger, who happens to work in your company. So why can’t you?

But then maybe it is just that family bond that makes it even harder to express recognition. Working with your family members means you are constantly influenced by family history and personal relationships, thus, being objective and rational about evaluating the work of family members without being subconsciously influenced by emotions is very difficult. Another reason for withholding appreciation could be that family business leaders might be hesitant to give praise or recognition because they fear that it can lead to complacency and greed. This hesitance is sometimes misinterpreted by family members, who believe that the reluctance to praise is a sign of indifference towards them.

A third reason can be the individual family communication cultures. So, when we look at families that exist beyond the second generation we find people, who grew up in a variety of households with a variety of values, and it might be a challenge to reconcile those different approaches and styles of communication with each other. Coming from different backgrounds but yet functioning as a group of decision makers becomes harder the more family cultures are involved.

What could be done …

First of all, families have to agree that to show appreciation does not mean to show weakness. There sometimes is a fundamental misunderstanding that showing appreciation in daily social interactions is interpreted as emotional behaviour that has no place in the corporate world – and hence in the family business. However, research shows for non-family corporates and family businesses alike that performance increases when an appropriate amount of concern and interest in a co-worker’s wellbeing is shown. That being said, appreciation should be shown in the appropriate context, with the right amount of professionalism, and without preferential treatment.

Secondly, there needs to be a degree of realism, when an individual feels unappreciated: There is a tendency to forget how the same situation would be assessed outside the family business. Would the same recognition be expected from a non-family superior? Would it be rightfully obtainable and realistic? There are situations when family members expect a slightly higher degree of appreciation, because they work in their family business. Such high expectations, however, can in turn be interpreted as presumptuous, which then leads family business leaders consciously refraining from expressing recognition as they feel it might encourage irrational expectations.

Really it is about the balance between what can be reasonably expected and what can be realistically provided in terms of appreciation within the family business. Furthermore, it is important for families, who are looking to create a sustainable future for their business, to be aware of the people who feel underappreciated. Recognizing employees who feel this way is important no matter how justified the feeling may be. The feeling of underappreciation is subjective but will always influence and individual’s loyalty towards the family business. A family member that has consistently felt underestimated for example, might, in a crucial moment not support the family out of spite, which can lead to a leadership crisis.

Of course, there will never be complete harmony and understanding, especially in larger families with a variety of individual family cultures. However, in order to be able to steer the business, family members’ awareness about individual feelings are crucial. All parties need to open themselves to understanding the history of misunderstandings. Often a lack of appreciation is a case of misunderstanding or miscommunication that can be easily fixed if properly addressed.

Ultimately, appreciation in a family should be as simple as possible: If you see that someone does well, why not tell them? You might get the odd pat on the back!

Tharawat Magazine, Issue 16, 2012