Focus on Research | PSU researchers examine tactics for balancing work, family in family-owned business

June 30, 2013 

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

    Coming up next: Two Penn State researchers harness the power of social media to track potentially devastating plant diseases.

New research from Glen Kreiner, associate professor of management in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, and his colleagues examines how individuals who work in family businesses manage the boundaries between the domains of family and business — or, in other words, how they manage their dual family and business identities.

Past research on family businesses suggested that strong boundaries should be erected between the two domains. But Kreiner and his colleagues approach the issue differently, emphasizing that family and business domains will always influence each other. Each person, then, negotiates his or her own boundaries to “integrate and segment themselves and others as they navigate the continuous interaction of family and business domains,” the researchers write.

Through interviews with 44 individuals in four family businesses, Kreiner and his colleagues cataloged specific tactics used to negotiate domain boundaries. Researchers observed four categories of “identity work tactics,” or behaviors used to “create, present, and sustain identities,” through which interviewees managed their own boundaries between work and family.

Individual tactics

Managing encounters and evoking consideration — categories of individual identity work tactics — refer to behaviors that describe how individuals manage interactions relative to boundaries between family and business. These tactics are necessary, the researchers write, because “family and business domains may come to dominate personal lives, making it difficult to determine where/when the family and/or business ends and the self begins.”

Managing encounters refers to managing boundaries in person-to-person interactions. Some examples include using word choice to signal whether a conversation will be in the work or family domain or choosing not to identify one’s family association in the workplace.

Evoking consideration refers to behaviors reflecting awareness of others’ perceptions. These tactics have to do with family members in the business working to make non-family members feel appropriately integrated and/or segmented.

One example is of an employee recognizing that his or her status in the family can make a non-family member uncomfortable, especially in reporting relationships. One interviewee said, “I want to make it a nonissue for the non-family member because I want them to feel like there is an open, honest line of communication.”

Organizational tactics

Adapting management style and importing values — categories of organizational identity work tactics — relate to the structure and strategy of the organization itself.

“(T)he boundary between family and business domains may require considerable attention so that the family influence on an organization’s identity can be managed,” write the researchers.

Adapting management styles refers to the ways managers leverage benefits of the family domain while minimizing potential costs through varying degrees of integration and segmentation. One example is to segment through emphasizing boundaries, or acknowledging the incongruence of family social demands and work-related tasks. Integration tactics can include being open and trusting with non-family employees and including them in organizational operations.

One interviewee said, “We have pulled ... non-family members into our health insurance negotiations to get their feelings and to give them a perspective. ... This is a family owned company, but the employees are part of that company.”

Importing values refers to how managers implement family values that are congruent with business goals and purposes. One example is emphasizing work ethic through family members’ examples, thereby integrating family and business domains by infusing that value.

Kreiner’s paper, “Managing Boundaries Through Identity Work: The Role of the Individual and Organizational Identity Tactics,” is forthcoming in the Family Business Review. His co-authors include Joshua R. Knapp, of the University of Lethbridge, Brett R. Smith, of Miami University in Ohio, Chamu Sundaramurthy, of San Diego State University, and Sidney L. Barton, of the University of Cincinnati.

Victoria Fryer is a public relations specialist for the Penn State Smeal College of Business.

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