Managing An Underperforming Family Member

WOW! What a topic!

If you have ever attended a county fair, you may have witnessed a Mule Pull. This is a contest of mule teams pulling a weighted sled. Sometimes you will see an interesting and metaphorical phenomenon: A team of two mules will be pulling the sled. One mule is pulling with all its heart but the other may give an occasional tug but is really not contributing to the effort. If allowed to go on, the mule pulling with all its heart will be driven to its knees. To me, this has become the symbolic visual of families with an underperforming family member on the team. Eventually, those who are truly committed will be driven to their metaphorical knees.

When a family member underperforms on the job it has significant ripple effects for the business. At a minimum, it creates:

  • Frustration among other family members
  • Lowers morale among employees
  • Reduces respect for the company
  • Underserves customers
  • Increases cost by requiring “work – arounds” like additional staff and outsourced labor

But it isn’t an easy problem. In my experience, underperformance is often tolerated by the family because:

  • Everyone knows they couldn’t make it elsewhere
  • After all it’s your son, daughter, brother, sister, cousin
  • Funeral homes are notoriously passive-aggressive. Since they don’t think they can/should fire them they ignore the issue.

Underperformance in a family member is further complicated by the internal dynamics of the family. Frequently, there is an “Alpha” sibling/cousin who tends to dominate. Just as frequently, they have expectations of themselves they believe should be shared by all. As you might expect, it is often they who are defining underperformance? I have to say that in the majority of cases they have enough perspective to be right…just not as right as they think they are.

Personally, I am wired to be a workaholic. I actually like working hard, solving complex puzzles, stress. I need to feel I am making a substantive contribution. I have reached peace of sorts with my idiosyncrasy.

But what if my brother is not as driven as I am? Maybe he is willing to work hard; but, not AS hard. Maybe he contributes in different ways than I do. Or he has different priorities. Is it right for me to impose my work neurosis on him? Equally important, is it right for him to resent my driven behavior which may, in fact, be enabling the company to thrive?

So, the first question we have to ask is:

What constitutes underperformance?

Simply stated: “If you are paid a full wage, you should be expected to carry a full load. If you are in a management position in a small business, you also must accept the responsibilities that correspond to your level of leadership.”  The latter implies you must do more than show up and accept orders…you must also think and anticipate.” In other words, you must contribute in some way proportionate to your income.

Hopefully, whoever is concerned about underperformance has thought through the level of expectation at which the underperformance would, at least, become performance. So, what do you do? At a minimum, Mr./Ms. Alpha leader, YOU should:

  1. Create a safe place where you can all explore the issues
  2. If one of you doesn’t want to or can’t assume management responsibilities, then adjust and find meaningful ways they can contribute
    1. Do not lower expectations below those of other employees
  3. Communicate clear expectations relative to job performance. For instance:
    1. Be on time for work
    2. When the company is busy, be ready to pitch in to help others
    3. Act with respect towards all associates and customers
    4. Take personal responsibility
    5. Be willing to be held accountable
  4. Be willing to provide regular feedback
  5. If necessary, get counseling or mentoring for YOU and the underperformer
  6. Be Humble
  7. Think about getting a professional coach

What to do when they won’t step up to the plate:

  • When a family member will not step up to the plate it is time to answer these questions:
    • If this person were not a family member what would you do?
    • Are there some alternatives to being involved in the company that make sense?

Not long ago I was working with a firm struggling with this issue. One of 4 family members was simply not carrying their weight.  In conversation, the others shared with me that he really didn’t want to be in the funeral business but couldn’t earn as much where his passion was. I observed that it seemed to me that his passion was High School Coaching. They were surprised at my insight and affirmed the observation. I shared with them that, as family members, they should have similar expectations relative to the contribution they make tothe family firm and that maybe they should consider encouraging him to pursue his passion and then subsidizing the difference in compensation. In this case, that made sense and the problem was solved. Family harmony was preserved.


Family drama always carries into the workplace.   It is not uncommon that the underperformance issue is more a result of siblings not getting along or being frustrated with each other.  Again, funeral homes are notoriously passive-aggressive. This is also a common trait of families where family harmony is important. I have experienced situations where family members are each fully capable, but simply shouldn’t be working together. There are several options I recommend they explore. These include:

  • Acquiring different locations and letting each person manage specific locations so they can stay apart
  • Sell the firm and let the parties get a fresh start without each other.
  • If they have multiple locations, divide the assets and go separate ways.
  • Retaining a professional coach that would help them mediate their issues.

Is there any hope?

Yes there is!

But, there is one universal, non-negotiable requirement:

ALL parties (mom, dad, son, daughter, uncle, aunt, cousins) must be EQUALLY committed to a solution. No EXCEPTIONS!