my brothers’ wives are interfering in our family business

A reader writes:

My two brothers and I inherited a small family business when our parents died. We have similar visions for the future, and we get along well (most of the time!). I am the manager of the corporation, and I am responsible for all the details. I pay the bills and keep track of taxes, billing, payroll, etc. I arrange for maintenance, get the bids, etc. No decisions are made without input from all three couples. All expenses are divided by the three owners. My brothers have no complaints about how I do things; I think they are grateful that they don’t have to deal with minutiae. They are both extraordinarily busy with other ventures, so they are pretty hands-off about the day to day details of the business.

My problem is that my brothers’ wives seem to think they are entitled to management-level input. They criticize most all of my decisions. They don’t like the chairs I chose for the lobby. They think all the office furniture should match. The paint color on the walls is too bright. The lights are old-fashioned and should be replaced. They want to sell the business and use the money to relocate it, or reinvest in a new venture. My brothers do not agree with their suggestions, but they seem to be extremely passive or afraid of confrontation.

Recently it occurred to me that if I treated the wives more inclusively, maybe they wouldn’t be so critical (going for spirit of collegiality and cooperation). I asked the two wives if they would like to be responsible for choosing replacement carpet for the lobby and gave them carte blanche in decision-making. Initially, they were all in. They researched colors and patterns and fabrics and prices. Got samples and tried them out in the space.

But the plan has completely stalled. Two months have passed and they still have not made a decision. Installation is tentatively scheduled soon. I have asked multiple times what decision they made (because I have to pay for it out of business funds). One sister-in-law said, “I can’t deal with this right now because I am packing for a trip.” I asked the other sister-in-law for the decision (since the two of them have been collaborating). Not only didn’t she not give me an answer, but she hasn’t even acknowledged that I’ve asked. Doesn’t return emails or phone calls or texts.

I don’t know what to do. This pattern has repeated itself for years (it took them two years to review a basic contract and then they complained about the attorney fees). If I take over the carpet choice, they will accuse me of being a control freak and impatient. If I wait for them to make a decision, we will likely miss the window for installation. Through the years, I have tried humor, pleading, questions, silence, reasoning, annoyance … nothing seems to make them happy.

I know the carpet is not the real issue, but I am at a loss how to manage a family business with people who are sort of family but not direct owners.

It’s very difficult to run a business where every decision needs to be signed off on by six people. Maybe if all six of those people are highly responsive and on the same page about priorities. But a situation where two of the six aren’t? You’re going to end up exactly where you are.

First, though, it’s not clear to me if your brothers’ wives are owners or not. If the wives are owners, maybe it’s time to tell everyone that the current set-up isn’t working for you, the person who is doing most of the work, and you can’t do the day-to-day running of the business on your own while answering to this many people.

And if your brothers’ wives aren’t owners — which I think is the case from some of the details in your letter — it’s even more time to tell your brothers that this isn’t working and you can’t run the business on your own and answer to this many people.

This is probably less a work problem and more of a family problem: your brothers either actively support this specific type of involvement from their wives, or they don’t but haven’t been willing to set boundaries to stop it. But it’s possible that they would be willing to set boundaries if you’re assertive about insisting it’s necessary. So far, it sounds like you haven’t really asked them to — the contrary, you’ve gone out of your way to include your sisters-in-law — and initiating a clear “this needs to change” conversation might, in fact, result in change.

You can use the carpet fiasco as your point of entry to the conversation — explaining what happened there and that you’ve tried to be accommodating, it’s causing problems for the business, and you know from experience that it’s a lose-lose situation for you where you’ll either be accused of being a control freak (after waiting X months!) or you’ll miss the window for installation. You can’t do it anymore, and you won’t do it anymore, so the owners as a group need to come up with a solution. Maybe that solution is that in the future if their wives want input into something, they have X days to provide it or then you move on without them. Or maybe you decide the business is at a point where you can’t accommodate non-owner/non-employee input at all (perhaps with an exception carved out for very high-level decisions that only come up rarely, if that makes everyone more comfortable and gets you to an agreement you couldn’t otherwise reach).

But assuming your sisters-in-law aren’t owners, their feelings about this need to be much more your brothers’ problem to solve than yours. I’m not saying you should wash your hands of caring at all — I would like to say that, but the reality is that family dynamics might mean you need stay a bit open to hearing them — but your brothers need to be actively managing those dynamics, not you.

{ 179 comments… read them below }

  1. I'm A Little Teapot*

    They want the benefits without the responsibility. It doesn’t work like that. Either they step up, or they step out.

    1. RJ*

      Exactly what I was going to say. If they want to be at the table, they need to work and stop the procrastinating on decisions.

    2. Tinkerbell*

      Yep. And the brothers SHOULD have the responsibility, so it makes total sense to dump the carpet fiasco on them. “Hey, we need to have a decision made by (X date minus a few days for wiggle room) – your wives wanted to make the choice but neither of them have been able to. Can you two please get this done? If you don’t, I’ll make a choice so we can still get our installation window.” And then follow through.

      1. animaniactoo*

        That’s a useful path. The brothers are allowing this to be LW’s problem, so land the problem back in their laps.

      2. Momma Bear*

        Agreed. I would include this in the next meeting. “In the interest of giving your wives the input they seem to want to have in the company, I asked them to pick out the carpet. However, they’ve been pulled away by other matters and we are out of runway to make a decision. After reviewing their research, and my own information, I selected x to be installed y date for ABC price.” If they balk at all or the wives mention it say, “Business is business. A delay would cost us money. Feel free to run your homes how you wish but this company belongs to the siblings.” Or something. As far as the brothers being cowed, I’d call them on it, or at least ask for them to back you up if they make you the bad guy. I’d also respond to the criticism with “You’re welcome to that opinion” and move on. You don’t owe them a new chair. It isn’t theirs to like or not. My guess is that they have other unwanted opinions about your life, too. Let it roll off.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      THIIIIIIIIS. Thisthisthisthisthis.

      You need an answer by X date or you’ll pick carpet yourself, and after this you’re not going to ask for their input.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        This is an approach I’ve started leaning into hard as a project manager, whenever possible. For a lot of reasons, lots of decisions on my project(s) require sign-off from many people. Even small decisions. It makes my work extremely difficult and can cause massive delays, which people then get upset about.

        So we’ve adopted more of a process of saying here is the key information about Thing, here are the basic options, here is our recommendation/plan, if you have any questions or concerns please let us know by Date, otherwise we will consider this approved.

    4. Butterfly Counter*

      This sounds like an older member of my family. She LOVES criticizing things. Therefore, she hates making decisions to the point that things crumble around her. It’s almost a win-win for her. If someone else takes the initiative and replaces the part of her house that is ugly/old/falling apart for her, she almost crows with delight in telling everyone else how much she hates it and is NEVER anything she would have chosen for herself. And if it continues to be ugly/old/falling apart, she still loves complaining about it (because it wasn’t like she had ever made the decision to have THAT thing there in the first place).

    5. Anomie*

      The wives did not inherit the business. I would tell them they have no input and this is the brother’s business venture. If they were not in the will or trust, they have nothing invested. Inheritance is not community property.

    6. nobadcats*

      After the first paragraph, my head was screaming: Girl, run! This is not healthy for you. You, from your letter, are doing ALL the business things, what are your brothers doing?

      Run. Get out while you can.

    7. Luna*

      Not even a case of stepping out, they never had any business stepping in to begin with. They didn’t inherit the business, nothing going on there is any of their business. They are like the droppings stuck to the goldfish, and their husbands are the goldfish.

  2. Hills to Die on*

    It sounds like they want to play ‘business owner’ without actually being responsible or accountable. Too bad they can’t even handle picking out carpet color. They seem like noise that your brothers need to manage for you for sure.

    1. DrMrsC*

      Anyone else think it sounds like the sisters-in-law are treating OP like their employee rather than an equal OWNER? I think it is telling that their complaint seem to be focused on aesthetics rather than actual business functions.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Yes. They are getting this from their husbands.
        The brothers have created an view of themselves owning the business they allow OP to run. The wives see the brothers involvement in decisions as OP deferring to them, bringing them the facts and waiting for a reply.
        Not that OP runs the business and asks their input on big picture decisions. The wives interpret this to mean the brothers run the business and OP works for them.
        Shut that noise down.
        Stop talking to the SIL about business. Throw it all back on your brothers. Give them a deadline for the wives to decide.
        And the next time the wives try to involve themselves, direct them straight to their husbands to manage their vanity projects.

        1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

          Some businesses are set up that way, with managing partners and silent partners. If the other brothers are silent partners, though, they need to stay that way and so should their spouses or proxies. Pick a lane.

      2. Artemesia*

        Time to only accept input from the brothers. ‘Why don’t you talk that over with Ted and have him get back to me.’ You need to discuss this with the brothers and come up with a plan where you are not being forced to respond to anyone but them. And if you can possibly buy them out, do it. This will be a lifelong nightmare. I hope that in addition to your profit share you also have a very good salary with benefits.

        1. Pennyworth*

          Or sell the business and set up a new one with her share of the proceeds, with none of the family baggage.

          1. JustaTech*

            Sadly this is way easier said than done (as the daughter-in-law of a couple selling their small business so they can retire), both the selling part (you have to find a buyer) and the “setting up a new one” – you’ve got the risk of non-competes with the new owner of the previous business.

        2. Hmmmm*

          I am pretty shocked this wasn’t Allison’s advice! OP should never be dealing with the SILs on business stuff – the only reason they have input at all is through their husband’s connection to the business….so that’s where their thoughts/criticisms/advice should go through

    2. LawLady*

      Yeah, I’m side eyeing that decorating is the only part they’re interested in.

      My mom and her brother and brother’s wife co invested in a small store a few years ago, and it was a very similar nightmare. Sister in law thought that her only contribution should be decorating the store. She rearranged things monthly and redecorated 3 times in a year (which the business couldn’t afford). She liked decorating and wanted to play pretend business owner, but wasn’t interested in the rest of the job (hiring and managing employees, payroll, permits, covering shifts, etc.).

      1. Rain's Small Hands*

        And I’m wondering if it has yet to occur to them that the business money is real money that comes out of their pockets when spent. So many people I know think businesses have an endless supply of cash – so if you want different chairs, just buy them, the business will pay for it. That isn’t the way it works when its a business you own. As well as running a business takes a lot of time, and things like picking out lobby chairs distract you from running, you know, a business.

        1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

          Like the Seinfeld scene where Kramer tells Jerry, “write it off!”
          I read this hearing the wives say, “it doesn’t cost money. You just write it off.”

      2. JustaTech*

        My MIL did all the decorating at their small business (once it was successful enough for her to be able to do it to the quality she wanted; she has excellent taste). But she also did the books and answered the phones for years, and retired partly for her health and partly because it was getting hard on their marriage.

        But. They chose, as co-owners, to allow her to indulge her favorite hobby (decorating) in their business because they both knew what it would cost and were OK with that as a “business expense” , and as the only owners, only had themselves to answer to about how they spent their profits.
        (And as distributors there’s something to be said for having a nice office/entry to impress sales people, both your suppliers and your customers. The staff areas were nice but very standard offices and the warehouse is a warehouse.)

        As a side note, when you’re family to a family with a small business, even if you’re actively not part of the business, you can still get pulled in in all kinds of weird ways. Yesterday my MIL called me to help her figure out a weird phrase in a legal document because “you have lots of aunts who are lawyers, so you know this stuff”. (No, I don’t, but I do know how to Google, so sure.)

    3. it's-a-me*

      It sounds less like they want to play business owner and more like they want to play interior designer, with the business.

      Either way they need to be told to bug off.

      1. Mongrel*

        Or the interior decorating is getting their toe in the door to expand into more of the business.

    4. Hoya Lawya*

      It sounds like they want to play ‘business owner’ without actually being responsible or accountable

      This is kind of the definition of “shareholder.”

  3. GreenDoor*

    Ugh. I worked for the family business and it was horrible. What helped was that when the business was passed on to my parent and their siblings there was a by-law agreement that stipulated not only the financial share each got, but the specific roles each were to play – four of the six siblings could vote, but not interfere in management. Are there any documents like that – bylaws, an owners’/shareholders agreement, or even something in the will that spells out roles? If so, maybe OP could use that to lean on – particularly if none of the legal documents include spouses as decision makers/vote holders, etc.

    1. FiftyoneFortyNineforpeaceofmind*

      Exactly. All decisions made by committee is not a way to run a business. I work for a family owned and operated business. Our CEO is on half of a couple, the President of the Board is the other. They have actually sat down and hashed out who has final say on what parts of the business, otherwise their relationship and the business would suffer. The other board members are friends and family, but they do not have a say in the day to day or management of the business. They have a class of non voting shares.

      This stems from the first business owned 50/50 by two people (friends) and the ensuing chaos when they didn’t agree on moving forward. It took a decade to dissolve the partnership. This business is owned 51/49 by the couple, so there is someone who legally has final say.

      Do the partners have voting rights? Or is it just the brothers? Ya’ll need to define the structure. And give deadlines if you pass off decisions to others.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I don’t even think it is a matter of what is codified. It’s a matter of the brothers want to give their wives some vanity project and OP is expected to humor them.
      OP doesn’t need a rule to say, “your wives’ wishes are your responsibility to manifest. I’m not spending my worktime chasing them down to ask about carpet colors. If they accept a project, you are managing it.”
      OP needs the voice to say, “I’m done trying to make them feel welcome. I’m done working for them. My job is X. If they want to be involved, they have to go through you.”

    3. Snow Globe*

      It sounds like the LW is the only one involved in the day to day operations of the business, so it makes sense that the LW be given a title that reflects that. The brothers/wives would be more like board members, involved in major strategic decisions, but getting involved in decisions like carpeting is not within the purview of the board.

  4. Ann O'Nemity*

    It sounds like the OP is doing most of the work. Are they getting compensated accordingly?

    Also, I was struck by this line: “No decisions are made without input from all three couples.” I’m guessing the OP’s partner is very involved, so I’m wondering if the OP is trying to get the in-laws out of decision making while still leaving their own partner involved.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Yes, that line stuck out to me too, especially in contrast with the later line:

      My problem is that my brothers’ wives seem to think they are entitled to management-level input.

      All six people should be clear on roles, responsibilities, expectations. Right now, it seems you’re operating in a space where the expectations of OP and of the in-laws are in conflict.

    2. Generic Name*

      For real. Everyone gets an equal cut but OP does all the work (which apparently includes catering to the wives’ whims/meddling). No thank you.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        It would be fine if OP took a management salary in addition to their ownership stake (ie the money the family would otherwise be paying to a non-owner employee manager).

        I mean, not necessarily ideal in practice, but at least fair financially.

        1. Emmy Noether*

          I’ve seen it implemented that way and working well. Otherwise the managing partner would be losing money (the salary they could be making by working elsewhere), so it’s only fair.

    3. mf*

      This is a good catch. OP, whatever decision-making structure you want your brothers to agree to? You need to abide by it too.

      Also, what are the legal ramifications if one of your brothers gets divorced? Would the ex-wife be at all entitled to a piece of the business, especially if she had done some “work” (I use that word lightly) for the business? If you don’t already know the answers to these questions, run to a lawyer right now.

  5. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

    The brothers are abdicating their own responsibilities as co-owners and delegating them to people who appear to be totally unsuited for the job.

    OP might do well to make it clear that decisions will be made by the owners ONLY, and that while input will be taken, it must be presented in appropriate ways (including timeliness, but also being constructive). If the brothers don’t make decisions then it will be assumed that they are letting OP make all the decisions.

    1. MK*

      Here is the thing, though: depending on the form the company has, a shareholder migth have the right to delegate their authority and responsibility to someone else, regardless of whether the other shareholders think them suitable.

      1. Empress Matilda*

        I doubt there’s anything that formal in place- if there were, OP would likely not be in this situation!

        But even if there is an agreement about delegation – usually you can delegate responsibility, but not accountability. That is, the brothers can delegate carpet picking duties to their wives or to their next door neighbours or their dogs or anyone they want – but at the end of the day, the brothers are still accountable for making sure it gets done.

        …in an ideal world, of course. Clearly that’s not what OP is working with here! I think the big takeaway is that regardless of how the carpet fiasco turns out, they need to sit down with their brothers and some lawyers and figure out how this ownership relationship will work going forward. And get it all in writing.

        Good luck, OP!

        1. StitchIsMySpiritAnimal*

          There might be, there might not be, but the problem word here is family. Even if there’s a structure in place, being the rules lawyer or involving one can be just as contentious in a real business as it is in Monopoly.

      2. Just Your Everyday Crone*

        Right, but shareholder rights and responsibilities are very limited and do not extend to the day to day decisions of the company.

    2. I'm just here for the cats!*

      I don’t think its that the brothers have abdicated necessarily. Its more like the wives think that because their husbands own the company that they can do whatever they want, whenever they feel like it.

      Unless the will stipulated that spouses have a share, I think the siblings need to sit down and explain that they need to but out.

    3. Green great dragon*

      I’m not sure this would solve the problem. I think the original approach was that LW would ask the brothers for input, the decision would be made (maybe with wife-input from behind the scenes but technically make by LW and their brothers), but then the wives would criticise, and LW wanted to stop the criticisms. But if people are criticising at family gatherings after the decision is made, then keeping them out the decisions isn’t going to help.

    4. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I think the brothers are still involved about company business decisions. They include their wives in the spirit of business decision because 1) family company, 2) always a benefit to have women listed as owners, 3) because they want to.
      Whatever reason, they have made their wives part of the company, now they are looking for a way to justify it/humor/whatever the wives. So they tell them to find projects. And the wives take the low hanging fruit, decorating, letterhead, furniture.
      But they don’t really want to do it. But they can’t say that. So they put the onus on OP. Just like their husbands have.

  6. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    This is giving me flashbacks to 10 years ago – except I wasn’t a brother and wasn’t an owner, but the hired manager. Two of the owners were brothers, the other two were very close friends, and one of the wives wanted to chip in ideas. It’s a shame, because one of the other wives would have been great to have more thoroughly involved the business (she was probably the smartest person of the 8 of them), but she was too busy with other things.

    OP, Alison is right, this can’t go on. You’re wasting valuable time and energy on an ephemeral concern (the carpet). There are probably 400 different color/pattern/weave combinations that work, you just need the job done.

    You may even need to fall back on formal procedures – shareholder/partner meetings, minutes, etc.

    1. Antilles*

      Yeah, the fact it’s taken two months to (not) decide on carpet is ridiculous.
      It’s carpet for a business. All you need is something that’s durable, easy to clean and looks reasonably good. Because of the cost and hassle, you do want to do some research on it and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth…but beyond that, it’s likely doesn’t really matter *what* the decision is, as long as you make *a* decision – gray carpet or brown carpet or beige carpet or etc are all fine but you need to choose one.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        Seriously. Unless it’s an interior design business or similar where the office décor will really say something about the company, it really doesn’t matter that much.

        Though I did work in an office that had bright red carpet from the 60’s or so, and that hurt my eyes. Neutral-ish is best.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Oh man – reminds me of the shag carpeting in the office my dad worked in when I was really little: Avocado Green in the offices and Bright Orange in the hallways (yes, it really was shag carpet in those colors). And of course, dark faux wood paneling on all the walls…..

          Fortunately the staff were amazing engineers – who had expense budgets to NEVER have project meetings in that office. Don’t think they’d have ever closed a project with that decor.

  7. animaniactoo*

    LW, I gift you the following sentences.

    “I get things done on deadline and keep the business running. I don’t have a problem with that. Calling me a control freak because I won’t wait forever for decisions is not going to bother me.”

    1. mf*

      A++ script.

      OP, because you’re doing all the work that nobody wants to do, you hold more power here than you think.

  8. DisneyChannelThis*

    Have you told the SILs that you need a decision on the carpet by Specific date 5pm or else you will make the decision yourself?

    1. Daisy*

      Yeah, if others are making decisions there needs to be a deadline attached. A deadline that allows plenty of time for OP to make the decision if they don’t step up. Don’t make their procrastination your emergency.

    2. turquoisecow*

      Yeah this was my thought. Give them a date to make a decision and if they don’t have one by then, make it yourself. “We need to decide on a carpet by September 5th.” Maybe schedule a meeting or something and hammer it out right then and there.

      Right now it sounds like the wives are saying “we want a say,” and OP is giving them a chance and they’re taking their time making a decision. Maybe it’s not a priority for them or they’re disagreeing amongst themselves, but there’s no structure or deadline to it. So give it some structure. Plan to get together on September 4th and say “we need to figure this out now,” instead of just letting them hem and haw for ages.

    3. DJ*

      Yes give a clear deadline (feel free to CC their husbands). Also,OP might want to specify that it is a unified decision from the pair of them. It doesn’t sound like the two wives are talking to each other.

  9. John*

    LW might benefit from a broader discussion about ensuring he has the appropriate decision-making authority. By that I mean that, given how the siblings have other ventures, defining which things they have a say in.

    For example, it might be that they approve the budget going into each year, trusting LW to make decisions within that (and coming to them for anything above and beyond).

    They are passive investors in the business and the arrangement should be reflect that.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      I agree. Additionally, I strongly believe the LW deserves a controlling share of the business both for decision-making authority and to reflect the amount of work they’re putting in. Do you really believe you’re only doing a third of the work, OP? You deserve more than a third of the profits.

    2. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      I really do think that OP has has all the authority s/he needs to make day to day and even larger decisions. OP doesn’t want to make this decision, because s/he knows the result will be an awkward Thanksgiving.
      “You didn’t let my wife do X.”
      “You demanded my wife meet your deadlines.”
      “You are a control freak.”
      OP can make decisions. OP doesn’t want to be abused for it.

      1. mf*

        If LW has a formal discussion with their brothers about this and they come to an agreement, LW can then respond to all statements: “This is what we agreed to. I know it’s a big change, but it allows me to run the business more effectively and that benefits all of us.”

      2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        And it’s extra annoying because if it’s the wives who have the actual issue, THEY should be talking to LW, not passing on information through the brothers.

        Might it be sensible to not allow the brothers to be the middlemen? Like, don’t have those conversations with the brothers. Insist on talking to the wives directly. Or that the wives bring those concerns directly to you (i.e., you’re not going to go track them down and start the conversation, so if this is important to them, they need to find you).

    3. mf*

      Strong agree. LW needs to sit down with his/her brothers and agree on this. Then they need to have a lawyer put it in writing.

    4. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I’m also very curious what the brothers’ long-term vision for this business is. A few commenters have pointed out that maybe the brothers want to sell the business and are using the wives as their excuse. So if anything about the vision for the business’ future is not clear, there should be a serious conversation.

      I mean, LW, do you want to continue as things are for the next 5 years? Is this set-up where you do most of the work and your brothers do very little working for you? Are you taking this on because you feel like you somehow owe your parents to keep this in the family and you know your brothers won’t step up? There are no right or wrong answers to these. Only you can decide what’s best for you. Just some questions for you to ponder.

  10. Falling Diphthong*

    I wonder if there’s an element that the brothers don’t want the wives poking around their other business concerns, and so encourage them to take on the carpeting at the inherited business since that’s “the family” and so in their purview?

  11. DisneyChannelThis*

    ” They want to sell the business and use the money to relocate it, or reinvest in a new venture. My brothers do not agree with their suggestions, but they seem to be extremely passive or afraid of confrontation.””

    Are you and your partner in any position to potentially buy their shares and make it solely yours?

    1. DisneyChannelThis*

      One more to add, you should be pulling a salary for the work you do for the business. Which your brothers do not work.

    2. Anonymous Koala*

      This is what I was going to suggest. In my experience, patterns like this are pretty tough to fix. Since you’re doing most of the work and your brothers aren’t interested in selling, could you maybe buy enough from them to own a majority stake and move them to passive investor roles?

    3. Willis*

      They’ve probably just become accustomed to ignoring their wives complaints, which is what the OP needs to do. Who cares if they don’t like the chairs?

    4. CowWhisperer*

      I’m badly biased from my awful experience as a married in partner in a family farm – but there is often a “everything was fine until the in-laws destroyed the system” element in family businesses.

      If the brothers are so passive and hands-off, why is the LW so certain that the sisters-in-law are behind the urge to sell the business?

      Is it easier to ascribe that desire to the two outsiders than the brothers?

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        “everything was fine until the in-laws destroyed the system”
        yeah, like it was Yoko and Linda who broke up the Beatles!

    5. linger*

      This reads to me as: the wives don’t value the business in its present form, and see it as a nuisance that family money is tied up in it. As a direct result,
      (i) they cannot place any value on the work OP does to keep it running;
      (ii) they will not agree with any decision that promotes the business in its present form; and
      (iii) they are really not interested in making any such decisions themselves.
      Hence it is clear that giving them any say in the business cannot stop them complaining; so OP can only make headway with the business by (i) confirming that the co-owners (brothers) actually do want to keep it running and (ii) ignoring the inevitable complaints.

  12. MK*

    OP, are these people actually coming in to the business premises? Are they doing any kind of work for the business? If not, I am assuming their complaints are happening during family gatherings? Assuming that’s the case, a way to at least put some structure into their involvement would be to ban all business talk from social occasions and maybe institute a, say, monthly, meeting between all parties to make decisions.

    I get what Alison is saying about them not being owners, but they are basically, unofficially acting on the authority (or at least the tolerance) of their spouces who are owners; not unlike shareholders who employ and authorize business managers to represent them. Maybe if you outright asked your brothers whether you should take their wives involvement as coming from them, they would face how this isn’t working. In any case, this situation needs clarity, you can’t run a business via a mostly absentee committee.

  13. IsbenTakesTea*

    This reads to me as almost more of a Captain Awkward question. OP, it sounds like you’re hoping for a script that will solve the problem without anyone getting upset, and it doesn’t look like that’s in the cards.

    How you proceed may come down to how much you prioritize the success of the business over family cohesion. (And if we look at the situation objectively, you’re already loosing both, even if you’re the one absorbing all the unhappiness.) It looks like you’ll have to let go of something, and I strongly suggest you come to peace with yourself over YOUR priorities, needs, and possible future regrets before proceeding.

    1. Kitty March*

      This sounds like a good place for the 3 to 1 choice solution. They come up with three carpet choices, you pick one. Or you choose three, they pick one.

      You don’t say if this is a space that clients or customers will see. Does the office decor have anything to do with the businesses success?

      1. PotsPansTeapots*

        My mother always calls it the toddler method. Like, you don’t let the toddler pick her full outfit, but you say, “Do you want blue tights or yellow tights today?” And considering these SILs….

    2. Hlao-roo*

      This letter reminded me a little of the Captain Awkward letter #1372: “Help me plant the right boundaries for the future.” That one is about a couple that is planning to start a family farm in the future with the intention of passing the farm business on to their children.

      Obviously different to deal with laying the groundwork for a future business vs. dealing with relationships surrounding a currently operating business, but some of the questions Captain Awkward asked may be useful for the OP in thinking about what the desired personal and professional relationships around the family business look like.

      I agree that there likely isn’t a script that will solve this problem without upsetting anyone, so the OP does need to think carefully about priorities before they choose a course of action.

  14. BellyButton*

    It sounds like only want to give their input when they have nothing else better to do. I like Alison’s suggestion of including them with a deadline. I also think it is better to give them a few choices that you have already sourced that is within the budget– “Here are 3 carpet choices, please let me know which you prefer by X Date. “

  15. KatEnigma*

    You’ve allowed it to be too open ended with people who don’t want to commit – and have no incentive to do so. It’s not their personal money on the line and you can’t fire them. So assuming you can’t stop them from being involved because their husbands won’t stand up for it, you do all the research, and then it’s either grey or beige carpet, magnolia or November rain paint. And tell them you need the decision by X date or you will move forward without them. And then tune out the complaining, like you would tune out the complaining of other employees, recognizing it’s just mindless complaining. Unless it’s affecting others in the office- then tell your brothers their wives constant criticism is impacting your business and they need to be barred from the building by their husbands!

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      100% this. LW needs to give the wives a few choices and a deadline UP FRONT. Letting people who think they have the whole world of options and an imaginary budget* fight among themselves means there will never be a resolution. This is also because these aren’t decisions where LW really cares deeply; he wants to decide and get on with it, AND he thought the carpet was fine** all along. If LW cares about the solution, he needs to say, “Great, I’ll send you three options by next week,” and then they can pick. If LW doesn’t care, he needs to say, “Great, go ahead and vet some options and send me your top three by Friday the 15th, and we’ll select one.” This is also the time to say, “Our budget for this is about $5,000 all-in,” or whatever.

      *I would not be surprised if this was the root of the dithering around forever — one wife has expensive tastes and one is mindful of money, and they can’t agree.

      **Not to make assumptions about Mars and Venus, but I also would not be surprised if the office space really could use an overhaul — that is, the things the wives are pointing out really SHOULD get done and would help the business run better and more professionally — but LW is not interested in aesthetics and would be fine not bothering unless and until things actually fall apart. Meanwhile, as mentioned upthread, the wives are getting the lower-hanging fruit of the business to fuss with to keep them out of their husbands’ hair, but then it’s falling on LW to manage the critical work of the business AND the less critical, but never-ending, decisions of the wives.

      1. GammaGirl1908*

        Edited to add: Agree with others that all of this depends on LW taking back his power. You run the place, so run the place. If they want to have input, here’s how to do it. If they don’t get it done, you make the decision.

  16. Gnome*

    It sounds like OP is both an owner and the CEO, so maybe they should use that setup. The wives have issues (it sounds like it’s mostly with atmospherics (lights, paint, carpet), but maybe not) they can raise them as interested parties, but it’s up to the owners for major things (selling, relocating, etc.) and the CEO for day-to-day things.

    For that matter, I’m wondering if the OP is being paid for this work or it’s being split three ways equally. I would recommend being “hired” elected/whatever as the CEO, with pay, and if the wives want to have input, they can ALSO have paid positions… with the responsibilities that come from it (e.g. working X hours per week, deadlines, etc.).

  17. Kitty March*

    If you are running the business, you need to take a salary for that, not just doing it because you own a share of the business. If the wives want to sell and the brothers don’t, the wives shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the business. If a brother wants his wife to be involved, fine, but they get one vote for the two of them.

    What you need to avoid is your brothers making as much money as you do from the family business, while spending their time on outside ventures. Seen this go wrong where Outside Venture Bro earns enough to buy Bro who’s been doing all the work out. Sounds OK, but there ends up being no compensation for all the work done to keep the family business successful, as money flowed equally to all the family. I’ve seen this happen and it gets ugly.

    1. Not Your Admin Ass(t)*

      I was very disappointed to learn this comment was not, in fact, about The Venture Bros. (Which Venture brothers? Take your pick!)

      1. Dr Mrs the Pseudonym*

        To shoehorn in a creaking VB metaphor, if OP is Phantom Limb then they need to stop giving the coffee cup and the shoe an equal say in what happens to the Revenge Society ;)

  18. Naomi*

    In the short term, for the carpet issue, can you give them a deadline? “Because the installation is coming up, if I don’t hear from you by [date] we’re going with [your default carpet choice].” Then if they complain, you can say you gave them every chance to have input and if they didn’t want [default carpet] they could have picked another one.

    But yeah, in the long term this isn’t sustainable, and it’s time to explicitly agree on what rights and responsibilities everyone has with respect to the business–possibly in writing. One way you could structure it is “if you want a say in X, you are responsible for Y.” At minimum, Y should be “communicating your input by the deadline,” but it could also include related tasks (for example, researching styles and suppliers for the carpet).

    1. CowWhisperer*

      One caveat: the LW buried the lede. There’s a non-zero chance the passive, not involved brothers also want to sell the business. The LW is roughly 1/3 owner so they need to be ready to either buy the other 2 partners out or sell the business.

      The SILs might be obnoxious – but there’s a phenomenon in family farms called “everything was FINE until outsiders married in”. Fun fact: people change and starting a family can make FOO issues become clear.

      (I broke a family farm by not being able to raise a special needs son alone while married. Just ask my in-laws:-))

      1. mf*

        “the LW buried the lede. There’s a non-zero chance the passive, not involved brothers also want to sell the business.”

        Yep. There’s this thing men do where they blame things on their wives so they don’t have to deal with the emotional fallout. They’ll say their wife wants to sell the business when really, secretly, they agree with her.

        1. Velociraptor Attack*

          I absolutely agree with this. My husband is in a job where friends might use his services (think along the lines of realtor) and he recently worked with a close friend who always said “well, [wife] thinks xyz” and I told him if he didn’t agree with her, he wouldn’t mention it.

  19. 40 Years In the Hole*

    Spending your (the business’s) money to free-range decorate/reno the office…with no parameters set= #lifegoal!

    Agree – I think a CTJM with at least your brothers (not over thanksgiving dinner) and establish a more concrete process/policy wrt how the nuts and bolts of the operation are to be managed, going forward.

    It’s not clear in your letter if you’re incorporated or what business practices you have formalized. Do you have a lawyer and/or a financial advisor/business analyst who can work with you, help tighten things up? May be water under the bridge at this point, but what about the 3 of you going through a small business course or mentorship?

    I could envision you burning out trying to keep all the balls in the air, while the rest of the family seems hands-off. It’s either a viable business – or it’s not. Good luck!

  20. HufferWare*

    Ignore them the way the one sister is ignoring you and stop involving them whatsoever in business decisions. Completely detach yourself from caring about or considering their “feedback”. They are using the business as a way to passive aggressively communicate with their spouses, this has nothing to do with you and they add no benefit to the company anyway. Pick the damn carpets and let them think whatever they want. Do not make this personal or allow it to mess up your dynamics, professional or personal, with your brothers.

  21. My Useless 2 Cents*

    Do you call your brothers and get approval to replace a lightbulb or pay a specific bill? I’m guessing no, so the first hurdle is changing your mind-set from all decisions are agreed upon by the owners, to I’m the manager and need to handle the day-to-day. Big decisions are agreed upon by the owners but everything else is under your domain.

    As a manager, you gave your SIL’s the task of updating the carpet, they needed a budget and a timeline for getting it completed. As employee’s, they didn’t get the job done. Now as a manager, it is up to you to determine if you should step in and take the task away (aka. fire them) or give them an extension of the timeline with clear consequences if they don’t get it done this time.

    Family dynamics can be a tough thing, especially in a business situation. How the business ownership is split up is somewhat irrelevant. Somebody needs to be in charge of the day-to-day and that has fallen onto you. If there is a problem with that, then all owners can come together and one of your brothers (or their wives) can take up the responsibility. But make it very clear that this is a job/responsibility. Therefore things like carpet decisions must take priority over packing for a trip!

    1. Mockingjay*

      “…changing your mind-set from all decisions are agreed upon by the owners, to I’m the manager and need to handle the day-to-day. Big decisions are agreed upon by the owners but everything else is under your domain.”

      This is gold. Own your position! Matter-of-fact, brisk demeanor. It is business, not family.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      I’m curious, is there clarity on what are things that are day-to-day operations that LW should just take care of and what are bigger strategic decisions that require more input? I can see how this might be a case where everyone thinks they know the difference, but they don’t all agree and/or that the distinction isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem on the surface.

  22. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    It was nice to LW to appease the SILs with the redecorating project. But clearly it backfired.

    Getting a clear understanding and binding agreement about the roles for each brother, including market rate salary for any individual doing actual work for the company is key here.

    Then if LW wants be nice and chat over dessert at the family barbeque about carpet swatches, the SILs can opine all they want, but the person in charge of facilities actually puts in the order.

    And as to whether to sell the business … that goes into the business/succession planning process with lawyers and accountants … decide on a process of fair market valuation and all the rest of it now, and then if a brother and his wife want out, they can follow that process.

    1. Littorally*

      I don’t think it backfired, actually — I think it’s ammunition for the OP.

      They can now come forward and say, look, I offered you a more active role in making decisions for the business, which you wanted, and you weren’t able to stick to it and prioritized other concerns over the business decisions. If you’re not willing to prioritize the business, then you sit back and let me make the decisions on time to keep the thing moving.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Good point. It caused some short-term problems, but it give the LW very useful information – the wives will not follow through on the timelines that were set – and a clear example about how their involvement is causing problems.

  23. Elizabeth West*

    My first thought when I read this was, “She doesn’t even go here!”

    I’m with everyone who says there needs to be a written agreement here covering roles and responsibilities—not only what’s allowable but what is not. The SILs want to sell a business that they don’t even own or manage?! No way. They don’t have a say. The brothers are doormats and this situation is not sustainable in the long run.

    1. iiii*

      If I were one of the SILs, I would expect to have a say in whether my husband continued to participate in this business, and to what degree. Not necessarily a definitive, unilateral say, but still. I’d expect my husband to hear me out when it comes to the family finances.

      But the OP is not a proper party to that conversation, just as the SILs are not proper parties to conversations among the owners.

  24. my name goes here*

    I think they don’t really want to make any decisions, they just want to complain about things. The wall color is too bright for them? Whatever. I think you should do your best to ignore their nonsense, OP. Easier said than done, I know.

    1. Green great dragon*

      I think you’re right. I suspect OP changed details for anonymity (because who cares that much about wall colour?) but the point stands – if the old way worked fine for the business, the challenge is how to manage, put up with or reduce the criticism. Maybe you ask for no business talk outside set business conversations.

      1. Pounce de Lion*

        It’s unclear to me how the SILs’ opinions are being conveyed to LW. If the brothers are the messengers (“OK honey, I’ll tell Sibling you hate the paint. Can we watch TV now?”), then they need to become better filters. This is emotional labor, but it’s the least they can do.

    2. samesies*

      This! OP please ask yourself why you are seriously considering any of their suggestions. It doesn’t sound like they care enough to follow up on anything and your brothers don’t seem to take their suggestions seriously so why are you? Although I do agree with Alison and others that you should clarify this with your brothers and define the roles of everyone involved. Otherwise, I would respond to any comments from the sister in-laws with a non-committal “Mmmhmm” and an internal eye roll, like you would if some rando with no business experience walked in and started making a slew of ridiculous suggestions.

      Also, as others have said, I hope you are getting the majority of the profits if you are the one doing all the work.

  25. Green great dragon*

    How much does the carpet need replaced? I’d be inclined just to leave that with them – assuming you’ve let them know the deadline clearly at least once, just let it fly past and stick with the current carpet for now. Focus on how to make decisions going forward, with this as a clear example that you can’t wait to get their input for every decision.

    And next time they criticise your decor choice, you can very politely say that reminds you that you never did get a decision on the carpet and isn’t it hard trying to balance all the factors?

    1. askalice*

      Yeah, I would leave them with their very important job … indefinitely. Like give them a patsy job, something you pretend is if great significance but is really so you can get on with the rest of everything and leave them to it!
      The advice to cut and run /but them out is probably sound, but if you are looking for a workaround where the family business stays in the family, a few choice distractions may be your best friend.

  26. Dark Macadamia*

    What are their roles?? I feel like if they had formally defined ones you would mention that, so most of your problem comes from not having a clear answer to that question.

    Are they co-owners, employees, investors of some kind? Whose JOB is it to make decisions about decor? If they are members of the business and this is one of their responsibilities, you should be able to impose deadlines, budget, etc and hold them to those things like any employee. (Should, because it’s hard with family, but if they’re getting paid to choose carpet it’s completely reasonable to say you need to place an order by X date and failing to do so is a performance issue)

    Are they just wives with opinions? Cool, they can direct their feelings, advice, or complaints to their husbands, who can allow that feedback to inform their work decisions or not as they see fit. You should not be dealing with a coworker’s non-staff spouse at your job AT ALL (again, should because family makes it difficult to have that boundary)

  27. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    On low-stakes items, like carpet, can you just let the whole thing drop without damage to the company? If you lose the installation window…just lose it…and keep the old carpet. Then they can neither complain that you took over and are controlling, nor complain that the carpet needs to be replaced (in theory…they sound like the types who complain about the ice in their water being too cold). I get the frustration of unfinished tasks and lack of accountability, but on the minutia, just channel your inner Elsa and let it go.

    Broad picture however is that you may need to just buy them out or get a legal framework that they are silent partners. They’ll still complain, but you don’t have to solicit/listen to their vote. It sounds, though, like what you want from them is validation and respect for the work you do, and that’s more of a family dynamic than a business one.

  28. Person from the Resume*

    The LW needs to clarify (at least to himself) this disconnect.
    – My two brothers and I inherited a small family business when our parents died. We have similar visions for the future, and we get along well (most of the time!).
    – No decisions are made without input from all three couples.

    Are there 3 owners (the brothers) or six (the brothers and spouses)? If there are only 3 owners don’t involve the wives in any decision making. If there are 6 business owners, you have to figure out a process.

    I will note your sisters-in-law seem mostly interested in the physical office decorations superficial stuff which I’m guessing isn’t critical to the business (but I have no guess about this business so maybe the wall color matters??) until they want to get out of the business all together.

    They don’t like the chairs I chose for the lobby. They think all the office furniture should match. The paint color on the walls is too bright. The lights are old-fashioned and should be replaced. They want to sell the business and use the money to relocate it, or reinvest in a new venture.

    I think you should just ignore them; tell them to stay out of your business (unless it’s their business too), but you’re the managing director – the guy doing all the work – so you should be able to make decisions without people that can’t be bothered to make a decision but can find the time to criticize your decisions it.

  29. Just Your Everyday Crone*

    Corporations should not be run so that shareholders have a say in every decision. That’s bananacrackers. Corporations are usually run so that the shareholders vote at the shareholder meeting for certain pre-defined significant decisions, not what color carpet to select. Not only do the SILs need to butt out, the brothers need to butt out. Make it so that decisions over $X or to change business strategy are decisions that require all shareholders’ input, and everything else, the LW is free to decide as she wants.

  30. Language Lover*

    I’m assuming the business was passed on to you and your brothers and not their spouses. I agree with everyone that you need to set up some firm boundaries.

    In the business, you and your brothers should get together with a lawyer and lay out what succession planning looks like should one member die or want to leave the business. Make sure the business is protected in these events or in the event of a divorce. I’m pretty sure inheritance is protected in a divorce but the more you involve the outside partners, the more they might try to lay claim to having contributed to the building the business.

    For that reason, I wouldn’t communicate with the spouses at all about the business. I’d exclusively communicate with your brothers and if they want to consult their spouses on decisions, like carpet, they can. Otherwise, you’ll make the decisions like you have been before.

    I’d even recommend having one-on-ones with your brothers to see where they really stand. You say you know your brothers don’t agree about selling the business and relocating but are you absolutely sure of that? You say they’re non-confrontational. Is possible you’re the one they’re not being honest with?

  31. Constance Lloyd*

    My husband owns a business with a family member. The dynamic bit less fraught than this situation, because the family member is nearing retirement and my husband is learning as much as he can before taking over. I am asked to weigh in on some decisions as a courtesy, and I understand my input carries the weight of a spouse and not a business partner. Things I have weighed in on:
    -Choosing a new office location, because it will eventually be out to pay for alone and the location will factor into where we ultimately buy a home.
    -My husband’s new office furniture, because that’s paid for out of our budget.
    -The general concepts of some laws which intersect with my husband’s line of work but do not impact it directly, because they are exactly my line of work.

    LW, your SILs sound a bit bored. They wanted to be involved until being involved made their real lives less fun. Your brothers need to manage this.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      LW, your SILs sound a bit bored. They wanted to be involved until being involved made their real lives less fun. Your brothers need to manage this.

      Say it louder for the people in the back.

    2. Lizzo*

      “They wanted to be involved until being involved made their real lives less fun.”

      Yeah, this. They want to have power without the responsibility. It doesn’t work that way. And it is totally on the brothers to grow a pair and manage this.

      1. Constance Lloyd*

        To add a specific WAY the brothers can manage this: for major decisions, each couple comes to a consensus between the two of them and presents a single stance or opinion. The business cannot effectively function with 6 separate inputs. Each family unit gets one vote. That’s it.

  32. ABCYaBye*

    Totally agree that this is a perfect entry point for a much-needed conversation with the brothers. Have that conversation ASAP. They seem to be OK with how the business is being run, and there needs to be a formal process set in place for how decisions are made… and a formal written plan for how the business is to run, if there isn’t one yet. And while it may seem odd to have to say this to your brothers, they need to be stronger voices in support of you when their wives are trying to influence decisions. It sounds like the three of you are happy with how things are running, so having outside voices attempting to undercut the business (and by extension, your livelihood) is going to end up being a huge problem.

  33. Ann Ominous*

    One commenter mentioned that this could also be a Captain Awkward question – which made me remember that her approach to being accused of being [whatever bad thing] is to cheerfully and boringly agree! Yep, total control freak, that’s me!

    You could say ‘I made the decision because the installation window had passed without a decision from you, what were you hoping I would have done instead?’

    But I wouldn’t go too far down that road, because CA also says that reasons are for reasonable people.

    You can just say to their response: ‘Ah, I see. [Your suggestion] wasn’t an option in this case due to [the timeframe][my unwillingness to mess with you anymore] but [we can revisit future decisions when they come up][I’ll consider (and potentially dismiss out of hand! but will have technically considered) that next time. Thanks for the great research you did on this, I think it will look great when installed’

  34. irene adler*

    I’d say the two sisters-in-law have made their decision vis-à-vis the carpet.
    Go with the input you have (namely zilch!) and do what must be done to make the installation window.

  35. Riot Grrrl*

    LW, I read this as much more of a communication problem between you and your brothers than between you and your sisters-in-law. Assuming the SILs are not formal owners, the decisions on the business need to be between you and the other two owners–your brothers. The boundary you need to set is with them, which means making it clear to them that you are not happy with the situation.

    Once you make it more uncomfortable for the brothers to deal with your annoyance and disappointment than that of their wives’, their behavior will change.

    1. Lizzo*

      Yes, your brothers are able to avoid the issue right now by passing the buck to you, LW. Time to grayrock the SILs and set some boundaries and expectations with your brothers!

  36. HailRobonia*

    What a difference the position of an apostrophe makes… I accidentally read that as “brother’s wives.”

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      That would explain why he passed them on to OP to entertain. He’d be plum wore out!

    2. Keep sweet*

      Me too! I’ve been watching Keep Sweet on Netflix about the polygamous FLDS so I was like, ok….

  37. Koala*

    This….. “They want to sell the business and use the money to relocate it, or reinvest in a new venture.”

    They don’t want the business. They want the cash to do other things.

    As long as they can’t get their windfall they are likely to find fault with the business. They likely really don’t want input but as long as they are connected to the business they feel like they should have input. However there is nothing legitimate to complain about so they find trivial things. You called their bluff and when it came down to it they don’t really want to prioritize the decisions.

    As others have said, if you choose to continue to invite their cooperation do so with clear boundaries and deadlines upfront. Otherwise don’t worry if they think you are controlling. You are not responsible for their opinions when you have tried to accommodate them.

    If your siblings have concerns that would be different but as it is, it sounds like they are content with you managing.

    1. Artemesia*

      And be aware that the brothers have two thirds control and so when their wives finally convince them to sell, you are out of a job if in fact you have a job that is well paid with benefits to run this business. I’d be looking at a business loan to buy them out if you want to stick with the business or have a very clear plan B in case this comes to a head.

      1. Hoya Lawya*

        OP should ask his lawyer about obtaining a right of first refusal over any transfers of shares.

    2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      Exactly this. They’re not invested (in any sense of the word) in this business. Their goal isn’t for the business to be awesome. That piece made it pretty clear they see the business as a means to an end, and the end is getting money, preferably in the form of a big payout from selling the business. Heck, they may think these aesthetic changes will make the business more appealing to potential buyers (highly doubtful this would work).

  38. kiki*

    In what context are the wives giving you this input? Is it happening at group meetings about the business or at family social functions?

    If it’s socially, you may need to let the criticisms role off your back more often. It seems like maybe the wives don’t like the business very much (“They want to sell the business and use the money to relocate it, or reinvest in a new venture.”) and are always going to approach the business from a negative perspective. I think asking for the wives input on design decisions was really smart. Even though it’s causing a headache with the carpeting choice right now, I think you have a better understanding of how much involvement the wives actually want– none! It’s really easy to complain and find fault, it’s hard to find solutions.

    If interior decor is especially important to your business (like if it’s an inn or something) I might do a gut-check and ask a couple outside parties what they think of the interior decor, just to make sure your pics aren’t atrocious.

  39. Ellis Bell*

    The fact that the sisters in law are commenting on aesthetics makes me think that they’re simply making conversation or trying to contribute something to the meeting when the couples get together. Especially since they’re not terrifically invested in changing the decor when empowered to do so. I’d probably stop having those meetings where they’re just expected to weigh in on anything and everything. Either give the meeting a really clear agenda, or present stuff as a fait accompli, especially decor: “Oh that’s the job of the (person we hired) and it’s pretty much done” or “the building comes ready furnished and extra stuff isn’t affordable”. If you really want them to feel included AND decor is in any way important to the business model, you can hear out their interior decor wisdom and just say “that’s a good point, I will pass that along to the decorator we hired to see what’s possible”. Then just do whatever you want.

    1. fhqwhgads*

      I can’t tell if the sisters in law are only commenting on aesthetics or if those are the only examples LW gave because they’re the least identifying.

  40. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    Also, this is why some people don’t let family members know about baby name choices or wedding decor … Unless you’ve got a horse in the race and you intend to ride it all the way to the finish line, your input remains irrelevant and is likely a distraction.

    Lesson learned.

  41. Despachito*

    Your brothers should count their blessings – they get a steady stream of money for doing nothing, it is you who is doing all the work – rather than pester you, or let their wives pester you and complicating your life.

    Because you may soon get fed up with this, and the stream of their income will end.

  42. Lady_Lessa*

    One thing that I have found interesting is the assumption that the LW is male, but I interpret it as they are a sister. That is one way to explain why their wife didn’t take part in the carpet decision.

    1. Indigo Five Alpha*

      Yes, I noticed that there are comments assuming OP is a brother and comments assuming they are a sister. I actually read it as three brothers, which is interesting as I usually default to assuming everyone is a woman unless it specifies otherwise. Interesting to think about how these presumptions change your thoughts about the matter – or not.

    2. Kammy6707*

      I also assumed that the LW was the sister! There seems to be a strong underlying need to “smooth things over” that I don’t really associate with men.

  43. Florida Fan 15*

    The fact that they took 2 years to review a contract tells me you need them out, like yesterday. The good news is if they aren’t owners, they don’t get a vote, on anything, unless you give them one. Stop giving them one.

    You are under no obligation to please them, so stop trying. It doesn’t matter if they think you’re a control freak. Let them be critical, let them gripe, let them be unhappy. If they offer opinions, say “Thank you for your opinion” and then go on as though they hadn’t said anything. Be warm and friendly about as much non-business stuff as you can but do not engage on anything business related. Their feelings are theirs to manage, not yours.

    1. Boof*

      yep – Lw’s brothers have some obligation to keep their spouses happy but LW does not. And LW can start shutting down them criticizing LWs decisions – I mean yes probably in a politic way because family but, y’know – don’t ask what they think about [business thing] anymore, change topic if they start up, find excuse leave room if they won’t stop, etc etc

  44. Moose*

    Alison, out of curiosity, what would your advice be if the wives were indeed owners? I image the situation would be much tougher.

    1. Snow Globe*

      I’d say that unless they are in the office every day running the business, they still don’t need to be consulted on operational decisions. They are shareholders, not managers.

  45. A More Brilliant Orange*

    • Lobby chair styles
    • Office furniture style
    • Paint colors
    • Light fixtures style
    • Carpet colors

    These are not business decisions. This is not being involved in running the business. This is playing business.

    If they want to be really involved, tell them they can start by doing the quarterly taxes and calculating the withholding for each employee.

    Then they can source someone to manufacture your latest product idea and get hard numbers on the cost. Then they can talk to a lawyer and insurance company to determine your product liability and how much it will cost to insure yourself against lawsuits.

    Then they can negotiate the lease extension with the landlord. And then performance reviews for the employees.

    Then they can do all the other pain in the arse jobs to come along with running a business.

    If they want to help run the business, then make them get involved. But this paint color stuff, that’s not running a business, that’s sticking their nose in where it doesn’t belong.

    1. Student*

      In programming, this is called “bikeshedding”, also more broadly called the law of triviality.

      1. linger*

        One of C. Northcote Parkinson’s laws. His most famous is “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion”, but he also wrote extensively on the (dys)functioning of committees, with such generalisations as “Time spent on an item is inversely proportional to its importance” (with bike shed paint colour presented as one example of something all committee members feel qualified to weigh in on), and “Work done by a committee is inversely proportional to its size” (he suggested that for a committee of over 23 members, any apparent output would actually be performed by smaller subcommittees behind the scenes).

  46. Moose*

    Although the carpet situation wasn’t really the point of the question, at this point I’d just pick one and tell them–“I haven’t gotten a decision from you and the installation date is very soon, so I am going to choose the carpet myself so that we don’t miss the appointment. Thanks for understanding.” Explains logically why you need to make the decision and takes it out of their hands. If they still complain or call you a control freak, so be it–they missed the window to make the choice.

  47. Kella*

    OP, would it be possible to treat this as if you are delegating the responsibility of decorating (since that’s all they seem interested in) to the in-laws, give them a budget, negotiate a timeline, etc. and then make the decisions necessary to protect the company?

    Example: They want to change the carpet. You give them a budget and decide together on a timeline. They stall and ignore the timeline. One of two things would happen here:

    1. Them ignoring the timeline doesn’t actually have a consequence on the business, such as, the carpet just stays the same and you let them miss the deadline because the only bad thing that happens is the carpet that they don’t want stays in place.

    2. Them ignoring the timeline *does* have a consequence, for example they schedule the old carpet being removed but then not the replacement installation, so the business just won’t have a carpet. Or they put down on a deposit on installation but don’t follow up, and that’s money out the window if they don’t schedule something. In that case you intervene, give them a final chance “Can you get X done by Y date? If not, I’m gonna need to take this over,” or if you want to give them even more autonomy:

    “Can you get X done by Y date?”
    “I’m busy with [insert life plans]”
    “Okay, what’s the plan to ensure that we have carpet by Y date?”

    and THEN if you don’t get a useful response, moving to

    “Alright, in order to ensure we continue to have carpet, I’m going to go ahead and finish this up.”

    If they say you’re being controlling, well, if all 6 of you need to agree on an outcome, and *you* don’t agree with the outcome of having no carpet or wasting money on an un-used appointment, then you aren’t all in agreement. It’s not just you that needs to be flexible to the way they want things. They also need to be flexible to you or you need to name what is happening and explicitly work out a different arrangement.

  48. Solitary Daughter*

    OMG, this is giving me hives. Lots of compassion to you in what sounds like a ridiculously complicated situation.

  49. learnedthehardway*

    If the sisters in law are NOT owners, I would be making the point that you and your brothers ARE the owners. And I would be moving forward with business decisions based on you and your brothers’ selections. If your brothers say they need to consult their wives, I’d be pushing back on that for all the reasons you mention.

  50. Marcella*

    Some clients have brougt home materials I’ve written for their wives to review. Invariably, the wives rewrite liberally and make wild suggestions that conflict with brand guidelines and basic marketing principles. I’ve learned to draw a very firm boundary because otherwise I’m wasting way too many hours trying to please everyone.

  51. lilyp*

    I would take some time to sit with the thought-experiment question of, assuming you a second you could only have *one*, would you rather have a positive relationship with your brothers and sisters-in-law OR a successful small business? You don’t have to tell anyone your conclusion or set any bridges on fire right now based on it, but I think knowing in your heart what you would prioritize if push came to shove will give you something to ground all your smaller decisions/responses in while you try to work out an “everyone wins” solution.

    You are also not stuck here — if this situation isn’t working for you anymore, you could move on and find a different job, without needing permission or consensus or agreement from anyone.

    Also, are you being compensated somehow (higher salary, more ownership, official decision-making power, getting more of the profit) for taking on the bulk of the actual work here? If not you should be. I am not at all surprised your brothers appreciate someone else handling the “minutiae”, literally anyone would prefer that — are they willing to compensate you fairly for taking these unpleasant tasks off their plates and actually keeping this business running?

    1. A More Brilliant Orange*

      LW should draw a salary as if he was a regular employee. The three partners should then split the profit.

      If they are simply splitting the profit 3 ways without paying the LW for his time running the business, they are being grossly unfair to him.

  52. P*

    There’s a lot of good practical suggestions here that should help but if it were me I’d be pushing them to understand the difference between management and governance. They can have input on governance but need to leave the management decisions to you. They need to be told to trust you to do your job and not sweat the small stuff like carpet colour.

    1. JustKnope*

      This is such a helpful distinction. Governance may include consulting all 6 spouses on high level decisions that will affect the business significantly. Management stuff belongs to the manager… AKA OP.

  53. Locust*

    My guess is this business is a small LLC. But small or not, family run or not, every company requires an Operating Agreement. That agreement needs to spell out who is in control. The easiest place to start would be to put OP in as Managing Partner (this would include a “salary” – or in LLC parlance an “owners draw” or “guaranteed payment”). Then the three siblings that inherited the business are all on the board of directors. All day to day decisions are made by the Managing Partner alone unless it costs the company more than $X (that number depends on the company size), or involves moving the company, selling the company, or any other kind of major restructuring. The siblings spouses should not be named in this Operating Agreement at all. They can have all the input they want by talking about the business over the dinner table with their spouse. Running a company by nebulous committee like you are now is a really good way to run it into the ground. My husband and I own a large company together. He is the Managing Partner of the LLC (receives a guaranteed payment for his work). I am in the C-suite and am a W-2 employee. We discuss many aspects of the business. I give him my considered C-suite level opinion on anything that comes up. He listens to me and weighs my opinion with great seriousness because he knows I am good at what I do. And then HE makes the final decision because that is how the Operating Agreement is set up. And then we move on!

    1. morjin*

      This is a great suggestion! Although our corporation is set up a different way – the family dynamics of what you described between your husband and you is very similar to how we operate. My father, the owner and majority shareholder, considers my opinion (and other family members), however, the final say rests with him as this is how the shareholder’s agreement is set up. And then we move on too!

  54. OhNoYouDidn't*

    When my spouse joined a business for which they would be a partner, I was welcome to one of the interview dinners and could ask any questions I wanted, but it was made clear that once my spouse joined, I had no say as to how the business was run. Any input I had was through my spouse only. It made total sense to me. Spouse does not equal business partner. It’s too messy.

  55. More dopamine, please*

    OP, the red flag for me is you describe yourself as the “manager” of the corporation (a lowly title for the person who is in charge of everything) and you describe your role as “taking care of the minutia” while your brothers are very busy with outside ventures.

    Honestly, I don’t think your sisters-in-law are the problem here. It sounds you may be splitting the expenses and profits evenly three ways, which would mean that you are working for free.

    It’s time to invest in your own authority: first, make sure your title and authority are clear and your compensation is generous.

    Once your role is clear, it should be easier to deal with the non-owners. You can either ignore their complaints as not relevant, or you can choose to include them in certain areas of the business, while providing clear guidelines, like budget and timeline, up front.

    (If your brothers aren’t willing to structure the business fairly and grant you the appropriate authority, then consider resigning as “manager” and let them decide whether to sell the business or take it on themselves.)

  56. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    Oh, brother. Or sister.
    This is why I hope never to have to work for a family-owned business again.

  57. Autumn*

    Before the business was sold to a larger entity my husband did the same job as LW, his sister and her husband worked for the business. While I owned a quarter, my husband “voted my share” because I didn’t work for/in the business. If these SILs can blow off the carpet buying steps because of home related reasons, I would say they don’t work for/in the business either.

    It really sounds like LW needs to get her brothers to shut this nonsense down. I cannot imagine a situation where I would have been able to horn in on business processes to this degree!

  58. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Another person here who thinks it is quite possible that the non-managing brothers want to sell the biz and are using their wives to say it and therefore they can deflect responsibility about it.

    I also recommend that if there isn’t a legal agreement with everyone’s rights & responsibilities spelled out already (by contract, will, whatever), there needs to be.

    In the meantime, make the carpet decision and get it done. Move on.

    Also, can you buy them out? Or at least one of them? Flip a coin and choose which to buy out first.

    1. El l*

      Yeah, agree, and while it’s rare I think AAM has got this one wrong.

      No more half measures. Either buy the brothers out, or sell the business.

  59. El l*

    We’ve seen this before with past partnership letters. One person does all the work, the other 2+ coast on making a few phone calls or paying a few bills or a few aesthetic choices – but all share equally. No kidding the brothers like this setup.

    That’s because the roles have been left ambiguous. It takes a very high trust dynamic, both in terms of task-based and affinity-based, to make ambiguous-role partnerships work. Your family’s dynamic is clearly not good enough, nor do I think even a sharp conversation with fix that.

    When we’ve seen these letters before, the solution was to set up a decision where one of two things happen. Either one partner buys out the other, or they agree to dissolve the partnership and close the business. And that’s where this one is going to end up too.

  60. morjin*

    As a family member working in a third generation family business, we have had our share of navigating family dynamics. Our “rule” is only “active-participants” in the business (aka family members who are actually employed by the company) have a say. And even then, that’s in the confines of what our role in the business is. It just gets too messy when there are outside opinions of every sibling and spouse and parent…. and often times they don’t have all the necessary information or context or work experience in the business anyways. So sorry, outside family members don’t get an opinion on the operations of the business. And ultimately, there are only two owners for us – one of which is the majority shareholder – and they are calling the shots. In a (thankfully rare) stalemate, the majority shareholder wins out.

    That can be easier said than done. A few suggestions from my experience:

    *Don’t talk shop during family functions. Try to keep family time separate from business talk. If you need to talk to your brothers about a decision – schedule that time as you would with any partner you are not related to (i.e. during business hours, not in someone’s home, on a private phone call, etc.).
    *Create boundaries. As an example, it’s one thing for any of my family members in the business to vent to their spouse in private or ask their opinion on something work-related. That’s normal in a marriage. It would be very odd indeed if that spouse then came barging into the workplace and offering reprimand or opinions or tried to run the show. That would not fly in a normal workplace if that was an employee’s spouse – so the same rules must apply here. Don’t voluntarily give someone a platform to spew discourse and don’t let the lines blur. Family is family, business is business.
    *There needs to be a Shareholders Agreement if you don’t already have one. It’s all well and good that you and your siblings are on the same page now, but if you all received equal shares it makes it very difficult for decisions to be made later on. Especially if there is a disagreement. It sounds like you’re working directly in the business – therefore it would make sense that you would at least have more voting rights than your brothers. But this is something you’d have to broach with them (and obviously a lawyer).
    *Talk with other family businesses. We have reached out to other successful family-run businesses to see how they manage the family dynamic and what insight they can provide. We have even joined a business forum group especially designed for family businesses. You may find something similar in your area!

    Running a family business is hard work but can be very rewarding so long as the proper boundaries are in place! You will have to work with your brothers to establish those boundaries. At least you now have the carpet scenario to cite when explaining why outside opinions and participants don’t work.

    Best of luck!!

  61. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

    I agree with the many commenters who suggest getting your sisters-in-law out of these types of decisions if at all possible.

    If it isn’t possible, you might consider trying to get them to make statements on what they want to have happen. Basically, don’t let them just complain, make them describe what their ideal outcome looks like. You don’t like the paint colour? OK, what do you propose to do about that? Pick a carpet from their options and tell them that’s your choice. If they don’t like that one, what do they propose to do instead, given the risks of not making a decision and missing the installation window?

    This is a classic Captain Awkward approach. Reasonable people can use their words and tell you how they want things to be. (You’re not obligated to just go along with what they want!) Unreasonable people are really bad at articulating what their ideal scenario is. You can use this to deflect.

    At this point, the pattern is that the SILs’ “problems” are becoming the LW’s problems. Rather than just letting them complain, make them propose solutions. Since they don’t want to do the work (or don’t want to be responsible for actually making a decision), they’re unlikely to come up with an actual plan to follow through on. If they complain about something again, you’re still waiting for their detailed proposal/plan/recommendation and you can discuss it together after you’ve received that. They will either get it together or they won’t.

    1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

      If you end up making decisions and they complain later, maybe ask them what they would have preferred that you do / how they want you to handle things like that in the future. Like, be very clear that Decision needed to be made by Date or Consequence would happen (carpet needed to be chosen by Date or else we’d lose our appointment / it would cost us $X). What, specifically, do the SILs wish you had done differently? In the unlikely event that they have some specific comments, you can evaluate whether you are willing to do things differently next time or if their requests are unreasonable.

  62. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

    I know it’s just a symptom of the problem, but…. OP, do you actually need new carpet? Or did your SIL’s declare the need and you went along with that because you wanted them to feel involved?

    Going forward, I suggest you use what advice columns often suggest for making plans with friends who are always late or often no-show: make room for them but don’t count on them. In this example, that would look like giving them as much time to pick carpet as they want, but you don’t make the installation appointment until AFTER the carpet is selected. In other words, don’t make any plans that depend on them.

  63. Lilly*

    As a spouse with a husband in a family business I have a unique perspective. The solution if they aren’t Co-Owners is that all of the wives input must come from the brothers/husbands. If they want to choose the carpet, they do that on their time and then give all the information to the husband to present at specific company meetings. No more of this whenever it works for them. Monthly meetings of the owners, discuss what needs to happen.

    It can be VERY AWKWARD to have a sort of relationship with a family business. To be able to provide ideas, but also not. And likely this business will pass to their respective children, which also possibly means at least some supervision by the wives if the husbands pass before the kids reach majority. And since each major decision impacts each families income stream, it also makes sense for the husbands to have these conversations with their wives. But the flow needs to go owners conversation- take it home to discuss- bring it back to the owners…

  64. Dawn*

    When I first read the headline, I missed the location of the apostrophe and thought one brother had multiple wives.

  65. Yellow Flotsam*

    LW can your business afford a good mediator/estate planner or similar? If the inheriting side of things wasn’t well planned it leads to issues. Even when it is – plans don’t always work long term. You need to sort out how the business will run, what everyone’s roles are, hope the money works (who profits how? Who is shouldering the financial risk etc). Legal advice and a competent mediator would help.

    Is this a partnership between 3 people, or 3 couples? Do you expect them to pitch in as partners, but have no say? I know many small businesses expect family to work unpaid to support the business (small tasks like picking supplies up from the shops, washing the tea towels through to big things). How are the partners exposed financially here? That’s also going to affect things. You likely have an emotional connection because it was your father’s business. Their emotional connection is likely not to their husbands and the impact on their immediate family. They will see things differently.

    You say your brothers aren’t willing to confront their wives – have you considered that they aren’t willing to confront you either? I think you all need to work with an appropriate mediator/facilitator to not only make sure you’re all on the same page, but to also make sure you have a good business structure. The decisions you are speaking of (carpet colours, furniture etc) seem to be low level. Who is making the business decisions on company direction? That’sa whole different level.

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