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It’s unclear just where the metaphor got started. Most likely, some well-meaning executive somewhere described their company culture as feeling “like a family.”
Over time, more and more corporate leaders started using the phrase “like family” — until one decided to take it to the next level and skip the “like” altogether boasting “we’re a family.”
When companies overuse the word “family,” it can actually do damage to company culture and morale.
But a company is not a family.
And what’s more — a company should not try to be a family.
When companies overuse the word “family,” the results are rarely positive. Indeed, pushing for family levels of commitment can actually do damage to company culture and morale. Below, I’ll explain how the “family” metaphor can lead to dysfunction — and the steps that leaders can take to transform their dysfunctional work families back into the thriving work teams they sought to build in the first place.
Misusing the “family” metaphor at work can lead to several ways in which employees can suffer. Here are three in particular that stand out.
1. Work-life boundaries get blurred
Many of the organizations that emphasize being a family end up taking actions that blur the lines between work and life for their employees. This was seen much more often before the pandemic, when companies touted free food, dry cleaning, happy hours and all sorts of amenities designed to make life as easy as possible — as long as people never left work.
But that became a problem unto itself. Employees never left work, spending more and more time with their “work family” but never getting the downtime they needed to keep their productivity going.
2. Committed employees can be taken advantage of
When companies or team leaders overemphasize the family metaphor, the next step is asking for a family-level commitment from employees. And this creates a lot of opportunities for leaders to take advantage of employees. One project after another gets taken on, without considering existing workloads and making it difficult for employees to say no.
It’s not uncommon for companies to cut off communication with ex-employees. Beyond being just plain wrong, this mindset can actually limit a company.
In the worst-case scenario, overcommitted employees can be asked to go beyond overwork and commit ethically shaky actions. When the survival of the company — or the family — is at stake, employees can feel pressured to use any means necessary. (See Theranos or WeWork for two recent examples.)
3. Departing employees get labeled as betrayers
If employees decide they don’t like blurry boundaries around work and life or around ethics and choose to move on — that can create a whole new issue. In organizations that overemphasize family, it becomes easy for leaders to label to departures as a form of betrayal.
It’s not uncommon for companies to cut off communication with ex-employees and instruct their people to do the same. Beyond being just plain wrong, this mindset can actually limit a company — since research shows former colleagues that stay connected become potent sources of new knowledge for each other and for their new employers.
So, what’s wrong with being a team instead of a family?
The intention behind labeling a company as a family might have been positive — organizations and leaders desire a strong culture made up of employees who are bonded to each other and who push each other to new levels of performance.
But if that’s what we want, what’s wrong with just calling that a team? Strong teams deliver exactly that. And whether you’re in a company that’s abusing the family metaphor or not, here are a few actions you can take to build a stronger team.
1. Redefine your purpose
One of the reasons for companies choosing the family metaphor was a poor attempt to bond together people, teams and organizations. But, as we all know, just saying you’re a family doesn’t build bonds.
Instead, research suggests that one of the most potent ways to bond a team is by pointing to their so-called “superordinate” goals — goals that are so big they require collaboration.
For many organizations, their superordinate goal is often already stated as its purpose or mission statement. But even here, there’s work to be done. Most organizations write abstract or lofty mission statements that can be difficult for employees to connect with. It falls on team leaders to translate that lofty mission into one that unites and motivates people. And the best way to do that is to redefine it from a big and bold “why” (as in “why do we do what we do?”) to a specific “who” (as in “who is helped by the work that we do?”).
2. Encourage boundaries
Despite what it may seem like at first, having employees who are committed isn’t always a positive because the line between committed and overcommitted people is incredibly thin. Many leaders and managers think they want people who will labor away until their work is done — arriving early and staying late if necessary.
But the truth is: In a modern economy, work is never done.
Most employees don’t want to be part of another family. Instead, they want to be part of a team that is bonded by a common purpose and built on trust and respect.
The only way to ensure that people stay productive in a way that’s sustainable is to make sure every employee enjoys down time as well. More and more companies are experimenting with ways to reinforce boundaries such as forbidding email after-hours, moving to four-day workweeks or even paying people to take their vacation time. And the results all suggest the same thing: Time away from work makes people’s work better.
3. Celebrate departures
No matter how committed a company’s employees are, most of them will eventually move on. New opportunities present themselves, life changes happen, and so do plenty of other reasons for employees to look elsewhere. In the face of this inevitability, treating departures like betrayals doesn’t make sense.
Instead, departures ought to be celebrated. Employees who leave on good terms ought to be seen as alumni who represent the organization even in their new endeavors. Departing employees are also a powerful new source of referrals for new hires.
In fact, there is no better recruiter than a satisfied former employee now working at a different company. In addition, treating departing employees well has a motivating effect on the employees who are staying, since they see how positively their exiting colleagues were treated and trust they’ll be given the same respect and appreciation some day.
Calling your company a family may be a well-meaning metaphor, but it’s not useful. Most employees don’t want to be part of another family. Instead, they want to be part of a team that is bonded by a common purpose and built on trust and respect. They want to know their contributions are valuable even after they leave. They don’t want leaders who overcommit and take advantage of their loyalty. They want leaders who help them do their best work ever.
This article originally appeared on DavidBurkus.com and has been adapted with the author’s permission.
Watch his TEDxUniversityofNevada Talk here: