During a search on YouTube, I chanced again on a video by talented comedian Shraddha Jain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nivva7G1XFw). In the post that went viral, she talks about layoffs. And at one point she says, “who started this confusion between hiring and adoption…real families take each other for granted but don’t let go off each other”.
“We are like a family.” It’s a phrase we frequently hear, perhaps even use, with regards to our workplaces and organisations. This is no surprise, given that we spend most of our waking hours in the company of our co-workers and often end up forming deeply personal relationships with them.
Branding workplaces as families grew out of a largely positive intent — and it has had some positive impact as well.
But what has been overlooked is the toxic effect of conflating these two worlds.
So, this week, my message focuses on the uncomfortable truth that work is not family. What are the downsides of pitching your organization as family? And how can we build a healthier, more sincere work culture?
To be sure, a family-like workplace sounds attractive to many people. It conjures up feelings of warmth, support and belonging, which can boost motivation and morale. This is why leaders, managers and human resource professionals often default to the “we are like a family” mantra. This sentiment can be seen across different types of organizations, from legacy businesses to tech start-ups.
But the fact remains that work is not your family. Work is work. And family is family.
To start with, not everyone wants to get up close and personal with their colleagues Many people feel uncomfortable sharing details of their private life at the workplace — but when co-workers are touted to be “your family”, it can be hard to opt out of such conversations! Managers may feel entitled to knowledge that is irrelevant to their team members’ work outcomes, such as how they spend their free time or even who they spend it with.
At its core, fusing work and family serves to blur crucial boundaries. In her excellent TEDx Talk on this topic, mental wellness educator Gloria Chan Packer elaborates:
Work and family are different entities with different goals, expectations and responsibilities, and therefore should be separated and have boundaries… When we land into a workplace and hear “we’re like family”, our brain just triggers into “give it everything, no matter what”. We sacrifice our boundaries, our time, our relationships, and we start living life in these big swings of overworking to burnout.
When family needs them, most people don’t have to think twice. They step up and do what must be done. But in a workplace setting, this kind of unquestioning loyalty can be problematic. It can lead to working unreasonable hours, going above and beyond at great personal cost, and even covering up ethical violations to “protect the family”. When employees work under this mentality, periodic burnout becomes a way of life, and the workplace can become a magnet for misconduct.
If we say the company is a family, then are employers the parents? Are employees the children? Are colleagues supposed to be siblings? This can create a level of unnecessary emotional complexity and confusion at work.
Moreover, let’s remember that family life is complicated, driven by primal instincts and emotions. Not everyone shares a great relationship with their family members, and those negative feelings can easily spill over into professional equations if we keep emphasizing that “work is family”. These power dynamics can also cause employees to feel either unempowered or overly entitled, depending on which role they occupy.
When we promote a family mentality at work, we are trying to force two very different value systems into the same space. A Harvard Business Review article offers some examples of the inherent contradictions:
Another problem arises when it comes down to letting someone go or sharing constructive feedback. In a “family” culture, it almost always will feel personal. You don’t fire a family member, nor do you put them through performance improvement plans. Relationships between employees and employers are temporary in nature, and at some point, have to come to an end. So to liken the relationship to a family creates an illusion that the bond will last indefinitely.
Earlier this year, Salesforce laid off 10 percent of its workforce, calling into question the company’s self-proclaimed philosophy of Ohana (meaning “family” in Hawaiian). (The Wall Street Journal published an article with the headline, At Marc Benioff’s Salesforce, It’s One Big Family Until Trouble Hits).
At the end of the day, in a corporate setting, nobody is irreplaceable. If market conditions change, we become expendable. If we fail to meet certain goals and standards, we must make way for somebody else to take our place. Hence, the realities of the workplace are fundamentally incompatible with the family values most people hold dear.
If not family, then what?
Instead of pitching work as family, organizations can use other ways to create a supportive, trust-based culture. Here are seven suggestions to get started:
1. Shift focus to purpose.
Rather than centring your communication around “we’re one big happy family”, switch gears to “we’re working towards the same purpose”. Defining and sharing a lucid purpose enhances feelings of loyalty and belonging, without the complex emotional overtones of family.
2. Use intentional language.
Next time you want to say “we’re like family” in a work setting, resist the urge. Instead, use clear and specific language to get your actual message across. Packer offers a couple of helpful examples. For instance, to communicate values, you might instead say:
It’s a priority for our team to feel trust and connection.
To ask for a favour, you could say:
We actually need this deliverable a week sooner. What can we do to achieve that?
3. Adopt a different metaphor.
If you are keen to use an analogy, why not try “sports team”? This term is now favoured by several business leaders. It creates a sense of collectiveness and camaraderie, while also acknowledging the realities of a professional, performance-driven work culture.
4. Define high performance.
Take family out of the equation when setting expectations. Instead, focus your attention on defining what exactly employees need to do to succeed. This is especially important when onboarding new employees, as it sets them up for success. Managers would do well to heed Brené Brown’s wise words: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
5. Clarify policies.
When policies around working hours and vacation time are ambiguous, employees often push themselves to overwork and burnout. Make sure your team understands that their leisure time is their own and that using leave days is encouraged. If you are a senior leader, pass on this learning to managers down the ranks as well.
6. Don’t take exits personally.
In strongly familial companies, the departure of an employee is often viewed as a betrayal. To avoid the emotional toll of quitting, employees sometimes stay on long after their motivation has run out — which isn’t good for them or for the business!
It would be much better if we all took a more practical view. Very few of us will spend our entire career in the same organization. Unlike binding family ties, professional relationships are temporary by nature. So, when a team member resigns, don’t take it personally and don’t badmouth their decision to those left behind. Instead, acknowledge their contributions and wish them well for the next chapter.
7. Practice healthy boundaries.
It’s vital for all of us, leaders included, to personally understand the distinction between the professional and the personal. In the TEDx Talk mentioned above, Packer explains:
When it comes to burnout, our workplaces and employers do own a big part of the equation. However, what I find to be somewhat overlooked…is what piece of the problem we individually own too. If I inherently have a tendency or a pattern to overwork, or if I’m not able to set boundaries…then no matter what external change I make, I will likely keep suffering from the same patterns over and over again.
Establishing boundaries can be tough at first, especially if you have people-pleasing tendencies and are used to practicing an exaggerated form of loyalty. But it’s important to learn this skill to protect your time and energy for yourself and for your loved ones.
Given that we spend a significant portion of our lives at work, our co-workers can be an important source of support and joy. Many of us are lucky enough to form deep, meaningful friendships with our colleagues. However, when companies claim the mantle of “family”, boundaries get blurred and toxic behaviours arise. Instead of trying to re-create familial bonds, let’s adopt healthier, more authentic ways to foster a sense of trust and shared priorities at the workplace.