Office Witch Trials: When It’s Good to be A Witch

Are you a witch?  I am. 

Well, actually, I’m related to one.  One of the Salem Witches is in my family tree.  To some people, this may come as no surprise.  (Once, when I dressed up in a witch costume at work, some former direct reports joked that it was nice to see me in my street clothes.) 

The Salem Witch Trials, at their core, came down to small town politics, family feuds, and behavior of children.  Some of the children wore bigger sized clothes than others, however.  They were the result of a lack of information and misinformation, petty behavior, and weaknesses in the legal system. 

In short, another day at the office, right? 

Unfortunately, I see this play out with family business clients all too often, generally when the next generation begins working in the company.  That’s not meant to cast shade on any next generation.  It boils down to the fact that more people inherently create more dynamics to manage. The leading generations is faced with playing two roles, parent, and boss, in a way that he or she has never had to.  The kids know every button to push on the parents and their siblings because they’re the ones that installed them.  In an absence of structure and focus, family feuds and politics and child-like behavior infiltrate the office like a nightmare take your demon “child to work” day. 

These dynamics can result in sabotaging the very premise that the founder relied on in starting the family business.  The founding hope was that the company would provide opportunities, challenge, growth, income, and security for the family.  As the witch trials unfold, bickering and family dynamics poison the workplace.  The viability of the business itself faces an existential crisis.

It's not uncommon for the following to unfold:

Troy is a family-first man.  He built his company with his adult children.  At one point, every member of the family worked in the company.  Troy strove to treat all his children equally, so he set each of their wages identically.  He allowed each to share their views on all matters of the company, even when the issue at hand was not necessarily within their sphere of control.  

Being a traditional man, he favored based on chronology over content, which also resulted in perceptions of gender bias.  With the entire family involved in the company, family conversations naturally spilled into the workday and business spilled into family time.

Personal crises bled into work and spilt the family into factions.  The office witch trials ensued.  Troy was the only leavening effect, and he faced enormous headwinds.  The family business, being designed to be family first, was unraveling.  He didn’t have the tools he needed he bring order to the chaos.

The Salem Witch Trials and Troy’s office witch trials lack the same thing:  A real witch in the room. 

There needs to be a “witch” in the office. 

There’s nothing like a good, strong “witch,” armed with spells and rituals, to bring order to the chaos. 

In other words, every business needs someone willing to put in a form of governance that outlines expectations, boundaries, rules, and policies.  Someone has to be willing and able to call time-outs and hold everyone accountable to the agreed-upon rules of engagement. 

Governance usually comes in the form of legal agreements outlining the rules of engagement for the shareholders.  Management of the business itself is guided by governance tools such as organizational structures, position descriptions, and policies and best practices.  

Family businesses benefit tremendously when then develop a form of governance for the family as well.  This takes the form of codes of conduct, family employment policies, communication systems, and other tools that define the values, vision, and goals of the family and how it will interact with the other two systems – the ownership of the asset and the management of it.  

Troy and his family never had these conversations.  Since most of the next generation have only been employed in the family business, they are unaware of best practices and the professional codes of conduct adhered to elsewhere.  Boundaries are blurred, so behavior is out of line.  

To overcome this, Troy is now rethinking his approach, especially as he knows he needs to prepare the company and his family for his eventual retirement.  He’s taking steps to: 

  • Clarify his goals for his relationship with his adult children and the ownership of the business
  • Communicate the above with the rest of the family and gain consensus around values and a vision for the future of the family business
  • Develop and institute, with the family, a code of conduct
  • Implement policies within the company that better align it with best practices, particularly in the area of human resources
  • Align the leadership team to best serve the interests of the business 

Each of these steps serve as ingredients in the witch’s potion, building better systems for guiding and governing.  They empower Troy to take back control of the direction and health of the company.  To help the family fly forward into the future.


Indeed, there are times when exactly what is needed is a good witch to put the office witch trials to rest.


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