We’re Like Family Around Here. Well, Maybe.

I have a confession to make.  It bugs the heck out of me when leaders refer to the members of their organization as “like family.”

To be clear, I’m not “anti-family,” but it prickles at me when used in the context of work.  I urge leaders to use caution and weigh the risk in their use of the word.

I think leaders sometimes use it to try to make people feel good.  They may have even heard long-time employees describe their co-workers as family, so they feel safe saying it, without realizing that not everyone holds that perspective.  I even think some are being manipulative with the use of the word, implying there is a caring when, in reality, there is not.

Even in trying to emulate the best aspects of families, the comparison of workplace to family can set up unrealistic expectations.  A workplace is not a home.  Co-workers are not family in most cases.  At some point some decision is going to be made, or action taken, that is right for the business or the organization and its employees, but is “unfamily-like."

If employees have an idealized perspective on family, those actions are just going to create disillusionment and broken trust.  All of which put a dent in a leader’s effectiveness and credibility in a big way.

Recently I heard a supervisor going on about how her work group was like family, and why that made them effective.  She finally said, “We look forward to working together, and go the extra mile because we don’t want to let each other down.”  Ah.  There is what I’m really looking for.

We use certain words as code or shorthand (like "family"), not expecting to need to acknowledge what they specifically mean to each of us.  What I want for us as leaders is to be very specific on what it is about family that we want to emulate in the workplace, to ensure we are all on the same page and working from the same clear intention, without bringing to mind uncomfortable connotations.

When managers say that they want their workgroup to be like a family, and I dig for the reason, this what I hear:

  • We’ve got each others' backs
  • We stick together even when we annoy each other
  • We don’t want to let each other down
  • We share our resources
  • We know if we argue or have words, we’ll get over it
  • We trust each others' inexplicable behavior, because we know it’ll eventually make sense
  • We all know where we fit
  • We have a feeling of belonging and contributing to something bigger than ourselves individually

These are all noble and character-based intentions.  I am all for a leader wanting to create a work environment that emulates the positive aspects of family.  But let’s simply describe what we want, for example, “I want us to have each other’s backs” and work on how to make that happen.

And yet, I am still compelled to be specific about the risks of using the words “like family” at work. To be very clear… for some people it translates to:

  • I am expected to carry your secrets
  • I put up with poor treatment
  • I have to spend the holidays with you even though it will end up in a fight

There’s really no reason to bring up these mental or emotional connections at work even if your employees aren’t hyper-aware they are being negatively affected by them.  And anyway, what organization member is going to readily admit that they object to the use of the word “family” at work?  Articulating that could feel like betraying the expectation of “being a family.”

My challenge to all of us today is to take another look at our words and our actions around use of the word “family” at work.  How it is working for us, and potentially against us?  How can we get a read on this without people feeling like they need to tell us what they think we want to hear?  And finally, what can we do to make changes in this context to strengthen our own leadership?

Adapted from posts at ReImagineWork.com.