March 2013 Web Extra: Trapped in the family business?

March 10, 2013 -  By

As our careers progress, we should all be able to develop new skills and abilities as well as discover interests and passions we didn’t know we possessed. Ultimately, our jobs and other professional experiences should guide us toward finding out where our true strengths and talents lay.

For many, the family business provides an unequalled arena for this type of professional development. Unfortunately, for far too many, the family business stands directly in the way of this—and, as a result, prevents normal, healthy adult development. And, ultimately, it keeps you from making the most out of your life.

There are many creative and effective options available to someone trapped in the family business. Of course, some are easier to execute than others, and each situation deserves its own analysis and plan. The goal is not to provide a systematic guide for what to do for every situation. Rather, it’s to create a very broad set of options to consider what might be possible.

Those who feel trapped have three options: to change their perspectives, take action or exit.

Change perspective

Through self-reflection or talking, some people are able to significantly change their understanding of their role, or what the family business means to them, or have a more specific plan for the future, so their sense of being trapped dissipates.

This shift to a more positive, less trapped perspective sometimes happens easily because many of one’s feelings about the family business can be based on faulty assumptions (e.g. “They expect me to stay here forever;” “My contributions aren’t appreciated;” “If I tell them I’m unhappy, they won’t care,” etc.). And unless addressed directly, these issues can build over time and seem much larger than they actually are.

It’s quite possible that conversations, thoughtful introspection or simply hearing support from others is enough to extinguish a trapped condition. An open expression of frustration, disappointment and conflict coupled with an ability to listen is sometimes all that’s needed to fundamentally shift one’s mind-set.

If a change in perspective doesn’t seem likely, it might be time to consider another option.

Take action

Each of the following actions involves the trapped individual staying in the family business and finding a way to shift daily tasks to be more satisfied, effective and happier. These may or may not be possible based on his or her current role, timing, type of business or others’ reactions to these options.

1. Modify the job.

Consider that many family businesses can be particularly inadequate when it comes to creating and documenting job responsibilities and development paths for family members. If this is the case, family members who feel trapped may be able to alter their roles enough to provide variety, challenge, stimulation or something else they’re currently missing.

A change in job title is not needed to accomplish any of these goals. However involving others is usually necessary. First, the trapped person should map out the parts of his role that he’d be pleased to let go of (without censoring himself, no matter how unrealistic hopes may be), as well as the things he would like to add or expand. This is only a first step, but it also may be all a person needs to significantly change his feelings about feeling trapped.

For more help with this process, you may want to seek out an experienced career counselor.

2. Switch the position.

While this may be more complicated and could potentially entail other family members changing their roles, it also may be a relatively easy solution. Those who have not spent time in other roles in the company should consider moving around. It may be especially helpful if a person has worked only in the family business.

While it may not be a typical move for family members, spending time in a less influential position in the company could be enlightening and provide people with perspectives they would not gain otherwise.

Also consider any gaps in the company and how someone feeling trapped may be able to help himself and the company by creating and filling a brand new role.

3. Change the business.

Relative to the first two potential actions, this option would be the most substantial. If the trapped individual is in leadership role and can research this option carefully while gaining support from others, significantly changing the business could provide a wonderful opportunity to enhance effectiveness and satisfaction.

This type of change could mean abandoning traditional markets in order to enter new ones; or it could mean specializing in one product or service rather than a broad range.

Typically reserved only for the owner or founder who does not want to sell or leave the business, this strategy is often employed multiple times during the lifespan of a business—sometimes to keep the owner or founder engaged and excited about his or her work or simply to keep up with changing times. The entrepreneurial spirit often craves this type of transformation and activity.

This change requires professional input and extensive research and would be a major shift not just for the person feeling trapped but potentially for the company as a whole.


The decision to exit is the most significant decision and the most drastic change that someone can make to change his or her current situation.

These options often feel the best—and sometimes are the best. But it’s important to take some time to determine whether doing something extreme is the best decision, a reasonable one or an impulsive one.

One can’t predict exactly what might happen after choosing one of these courses of action, but he or she can prepare for what will likely come—many adjustments, some with both positive and negative implications:

  • In relationships
  • In daily activities
  • In finances
  • In status
  • In power
  • In influence
  • In identity.

From work done with people in retirement, it is clear that the “dream” of life after work is frequently not at all what retirees thought it would be. Many people end up desperate for activity, goals and work. Those considering exiting the business should base decisions on a thorough examination of options.

The bottom line is: Those who leave should do so with eyes wide open—with the knowledge that it may be the best possible decision for right now, but change inevitably involves losses as well as gains.

This article is excerpted with permission from the author’s book Trapped in the Family Business. Klein has a doctorate in clinical psychology and lives with his family in Massachusetts, where he works as a consultant, speaker and facilitator. Reach him via

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