Dec
29

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

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development

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.

 


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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers: http://www.reimaginework.com/LCG/  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

William Powell  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

What I appreciate best about this is it takes into consideration those in the organization who may have a distorted view of family. I don’t think many of us had a perfect family, so any family dysfunctions that caused us some serious challenges will affect our perspective at work. (questioning motives, etc.)

This boils down to a communication issue, more than a cultural issue. The desired culture is noble and beneficial to the organization. How that culture is being communicated is vague and non-specific.

Great insight Mary!
Cheers,
William

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

William, thanks so much for your comments. I so appreciate them because you articulated exactly what I want to get across,

“This boils down to a communication issue, more than a cultural issue.”

Monica Diaz  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

As always, Mary, it depends on where it is said. I agree with you that more clarity becomes more effective, especially if you are managing large groups of people. What is “like family” is a great question and the bit about carrying each other’s secrets or being in some sort of insider society with untold rules is NOT conducive to creating a great work environment. I also believe that so many of us have a negative perspective of the words “work” and “workplace”, “colleagues”, “team” and such that they are almost seen as nasty and “family” is meant to be more benevolent. I love what you are saying here. And I would also like to see leaders build up the significance of work as an expression of who we are in the world and a way to make a difference!

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Monica, thank you so much for responding to my post. I love this poitn you made:

“…so many of us have a negative perspective of the words “work” and “workplace”, “colleagues”, “team” and such that they are almost seen as nasty and “family” is meant to be more benevolent.”

So true, and something *I* need to keep in mind more.

Also loved this, “I would also like to see leaders build up the significance of work as an expression of who we are in the world and a way to make a difference!

I’m with you.

Mike Henry  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mary, this is a very thoughtful post. Coming from a fairly middle-of-the-road family experience, I just don’t naturally think about the things you mention. I’ve been negligent in that area. Thanks for reminding me that other people associate different meanings with the words and analogies I use. I appreciate the reminder.

Mike…

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mike, thanks for your supportive comments. You got exactly what I would have wanted my reader to get.

My Best,
Mary

HeatherEColeman  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mary,
I love thought-provoking posts such as this one! In the past, I have worked for organizations that claimed to treat their employees ‘like family’ when the reality was: Mistrust, selfishness, paranoia, bullying, underhandedness and so forth.

Conversely, the organization I have worked with for the past five years *is* like a family – we respect, care for and support one another professionally and personally. We call each other ‘work family’ and there is nothing any of us wouldn’t do – and have done – to help each other at work or at home.

I had very dysfunctional parents, so when I think of ‘family’ in that context, it has negative connotations. However, the family I have created as an adult along with my husband’s family show me every day that care, compassion, honesty, trustworthiness and support are foundational to healthy families.

I believe it comes down to leadership. I am very interested in hearing more insights from others – great post!

@HeatherEColeman

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you Heather for sharing your experiences. My goal is not to put a damper on family-like feeling, and all the benefits of it in a work experience.

I too have had experiences like you described here: “…the organization I have worked with for the past five years *is* like a family – we respect, care for and support one another professionally and personally. We call each other ‘work family’ and there is nothing any of us wouldn’t do – and have done – to help each other at work or at home.”

You summed it up with this, which is why we are all here at LeadChange: “I believe it comes down to leadership.”

Thank you again for your comments. Mary

Tara R. Alemany  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Interesting post, Mary… It made me really think. The last company I worked for was a well-established on, owned by one family for multiple generations. Being privately held, when we’d hear about management decision, we’d always hear “The Family decided…” It caused a chuckle after a time because it brought to mind the Mafia.

Being a family-owned company, they emphasized work-life balance, and the intent to treat us like family. However, when they let hundreds of employees go in the past year, it had more than the usual shock attached to it. Not only did I lose my job, but I got “voted off the island” too! My “family” didn’t want me anymore, and it contained more than just a professional sting. It felt personal as well, when it was purely a business decision. This created a dynamic that’s hard both for those who are now jobless and those who are left behind. I was very close to the colleagues I worked with regularly, and it was hard to find new ground for us to relate with each other once I was cast out of the family.

So, while I agree that leaders need to be clear about what they are really trying to accomplish and they need to be careful about likening their team to a family, I think that in the best teams, it’s almost unavoidable that team members will form close relationships that may ultimately be put in the context of “family.” After all, in many work situations, we spend more hours a day with the people we work with than we actually do with members of our own family units…

Therefore, leaders need to be aware of the context being created for their teams, and take that into consideration during their own interactions within the team. This may be easier to do in larger companies than it is in smaller ones where teams are more tight-knit and work more frequently together.

Anyway, interesting article, Mary! Thanks for sharing your pet peeve, and making us all more mindful of how we communicate to those we lead.

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Thank you for sharing all of that, Tara. I’m sorry you had to go through all of that. Your story puts a face on the concern I put forth.

Workplace relationships can be complex, as can family relationships. What you said here, “Therefore, leaders need to be aware of the context being created for their teams, and take that into consideration during their own interactions within the team,” is imperative to truly mature, thoughtful and effective leadership.

Again, thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts. Mary

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

I want to publicly thank Jennifer Miller for her feedback and editing suggestions so that I could “go public” with this post. Thanks again, Jennifer.

Jennifer V. Miller  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mary,

You are quite welcome! It’s a great post and one that is resonating with our readership.

Mary C Schaefer  |  29 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Yes, so pleased.

Jake Hillman  |  30 Dec 2010  |  Reply

Mary,
This was an interesting post. I’ve got to also confess that I use this term loosely, probably because I’ve been with my company for over 12 years and remember when it did feel like “family”. I think that one way to change that term is to use “community” instead. As the organization I work at has grown, it looks a lot less like a family and more like a community where we do still care for one another, but there’s no preconceived notions that, even though we are spread out over thousands of miles, we are still a family. I mean, I have third cousins that are technically family, but I have not spoken to them in over 5 years.
I’ve recently started to appreciate some of the other communities that I’m involved in, such as Lead Change. This past Christmas, I actually received more cards from clients that I help mentor than from my co-workers. Interesting that the people who have really shown that they care and appreciate me are the people I spend less time with but do have a deeper connection. I think that’s the point: it’s about how we connect, not about what we call ourselves.
Great post. I appreciate how risky it must have felt putting this out there.
Best, Jake

Mary C Schaefer  |  12 Jan 2011  |  Reply

Thanks Jake, so much for your response. I think “community” is a good alternative.

And I think you nailed it with this: “it’s about how we connect.” There’s not enough of that in too many organizations. Just as long as we are all clear and direct about what we mean by that :-)

Thanks again,
Mary

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