Your Company isn’t Family (Unless it’s Your Family’s Company)

Two fencers dressed in white on a black background, one lunging the other parrying.

TL;DR: Many leaders aspire to create a workplace that feels like a family. They believe that by fostering a sense of belonging and loyalty among their employees, they can boost their performance and happiness. But is this really the best way to run a business? Or is it a recipe for disaster?

To avoid the pitfalls of the workplace family, you need to be aware, clear, respectful, positive, and assertive in your work relationships. And be thoughtful on the metaphors you choose.

In recent discussions with many employees across a wide spectrum of roles and seniority in the last few weeks, I’ve thought a lot about comraderie and the concept of a “work family”, and how important it is to challenge the common assumption that your company is your family. Drawing on the insights of several different leaders, I believe that this approach and using the term “family” can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts between employers and employees. There are better metaphors for the people in your (increasingly hybrid) workplace – similarly, I’ve used the term “team”, never family.

I’ve heard how employees experienced firsthand negative consequences of working with their “family”, feeling exploited, manipulated, and betrayed by leaders and colleagues. In some cases, people shared that they struggled to balance their personal and professional lives, and to maintain integrity and identity. I’m hopeful that it makes you think and consider how to avoid the pitfalls of the workplace “family”.

“Like family” at work isn’t family.

Reid Hoffman once wrote that…

“… when CEOs describe their company as being “like family,” we think they mean well. But using the term family makes it easy for misunderstandings to arise. They’re searching for a model that represents the kind of relationships they want to have with their employees—a lifetime relationship with a sense of belonging.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Reid and his co-authors outline that companies are not families, but teams, sharing that while families are based on unconditional acceptance, teams are based on conditional contribution. You have unconditional love and support from your relatives no matter what happens. Teams share some similar attributes, in the expectations staff and peers have as you all contribute to a common goal while holding one another accountable for their actions.

Some similar emotional bonds you have with family can be overlaid on employees, and this can lead to tolerating poor performance, undermining leadership, and creating a sense of entitlement. And while families are static, we’ve seen recently (particularly with the broad wave of layoffs) how teams are dynamic and can be just as easily broken apart as they are constituted.

Consider this excerpt from one of Michael Gervaisrecent podcast episodes (emphasis mine)…

“…where I think it breaks down is [when] the organization talks about family… I find that to be manipulative, off putting. Some families are really traumatic, some are amazing. It’s a bit of a manipulation to try to create a deeper care. In business, like I don’t get it at all.”

I agree with Dr. Mike, even (and especially) when leaders strive to create strong family-like, emotional bonds at work.

Saera Khan and Lauren C. Howe wrote that “55% said they would prefer companies with a family feel, held together by tradition and loyalty.”

But I’ve learned from working with and creating high performing teams and in employee development at Microsoft over the last couple of decades that overzealous loyalty that would normally be reserved for my immediate family members can make you vulnerable to exploitation.

You might end up working 60+ hour weeks, over weekend, breaking away from true family events to just check in – all for the good for the blurred company / family boundaries. Joshua A. Luna covered this in his article about “family” corporate cultures:

“When employees work under this mentality, it’s only a matter of time until performance and productivity drop due to burnout, leading to conversations w/ managers or HR about what they did wrong. This creates a perception for employees to believe they’re not doing their part. Left unaddressed, employers could foster an environment where burnout is the norm and ultimately impacts the bottom line through employee attrition and lost productivity.”

Some leaders try to sell the workplace as a foster “family” to create loyalty and belonging. They like to think of their workplaces as families and sell it as such. They use this metaphor to foster a sense of loyalty and belonging among their employees.

But this can have serious drawbacks for their happiness, productivity, and even their morality. When work becomes family, the lines between personal and professional, work and life, blur. Employees may feel pressured to conform, sacrifice, or compromise for the sake of the “family”. They may also lose sight of their own goals, values, and boundaries.

So how can you avoid falling into the trap of the workplace family? As an employee and as a leader, you need to be aware of how this culture can be oversold. You need to clarify your expectations, maintain healthy boundaries, highlight positive examples, and speak up against abuse. You need to rethink your relationship with your work — and with your family.

I’m interested to know what you think, and about your own experiences.

  • Have you ever worked in a company that claimed to be like a family? How did it affect you?
  • What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of using the family metaphor in the workplace?
  • How do you set and maintain healthy boundaries with your work and your real family?

#worklifebalance #EmployeeExperience #EX #companyculture #growthmindset #health