Why confusing business and family is exploitive and toxic

"We are all family here," or "Welcome to the family".  We have all heard these.

Why confusing business and family is exploitive and toxic

 “We are all family here,” or “Welcome to the family”.  We have all heard these.   Creating a family has been a popular strategy to form close-knit cultures and increase loyalty for many decades.  But old ideas are not necessarily good ones.

For many start-ups, the concept rings true.  My last business started at home.  I was a single Mum and the first couple of people who worked for me were in and out of the house, discussing business at all hours, often staying for a drink or a meal.  When the business grew, and we moved into our first factory, I was anxious to preserve that family feel.  While we were small, it worked; people loved it.  As we grew, it started to backfire.  It is this transition from a tiny, quasi-family to an organization that creates start-ups so many cultural issues.

It sounds like such a wonderful concept.  No wonder companies from start-ups to Silicon Valley have been propounding it for decades.  But it doesn’t attract everyone.  Some do not want to see their business as a family, but to see work as work, and home as home.   They may still want to perform well, but simply that they are happiest with clear boundaries between the two parts of their life.  Others are not comfortable with seeing their bosses as parental figures who tell them what to do.  The days of the patriarch – or even matriarch- presiding over their minions is long gone.  Cultures have moved on from the directional, the micro-managing and we now recognize that people perform better when trusted and empowered to make decisions for themselves.

Business relationships are entirely different from family ones.  Family members are bound by genes rather than common purpose.  They can have completely individual goals and passions yet still belong to the same family.  Equally, parents do not have to account to investors and customers so they can put the interests of the family as the sole priority. 

Families will still have standards and expectations of each other but they love unconditionally.  High performance as a way of earning affection is known to be unhealthy in a family.    Families do not use sets of metrics to continually assess performance in order to reward their members.  Businesses cannot afford that. 

They have to part company with people who don’t behave, perform or sing to their tune.  But once you set up an emotional family dynamic, negative feedback in the workplace, leave alone a termination, becomes a personal attack, and hugely destructive to the individual.  In fairness, that works both ways.  I remember one successful founder telling me smugly how all her team loved her, and wincing.  How inappropriate.  Loving your boss or thriving on having team members love you is unhealthy for both parties.

Going to work for a company that propounds a family culture sounds wonderful.  Humans are programmed to want to belong.   But it is also psychologically completely confusing.  The lines between real family and “work family” become blurred.  Close emotional attachments are formed at work.  People start to think of work colleagues as family and expect them to behave as such.  This can cause issues when relationship tensions are transferred from family to workplace or vice versa.   And, of course, not all of us have healthy family relationships, and, therefore, those dynamics too can be transferred into our attitudes in the workplace.

The family concept means employees are much more susceptible to giving too much.  When a family member asks something of you, you tend to do everything you can.  When we start responding like that at work, putting company interests in front of our own,  it leaves us open to exploitation.  We react in emotional ways rather than practical ones, driving ourselves too hard and giving far too much.  Exhaustion, dropping performance, and high percentages of burnout become inevitable results.  

A group of people bound together by shared values and inspired by the same vision is a healthy workplace.   Clear goals and expectations in achieving these things lead to trust and motivation.  People feel secure and know what they need to do and why.  People being passionate about their work is great and leads to success and happiness all around.  However, clear boundaries are healthy between home and work are essential.  

But calling your business a family is one whopping great lie.  A business cannot function as a family.  It is healthy to recognize that, and completely false to pretend that it can.  While it may take people in for a while, sooner or later, the relationship falters, and high turnover is inevitable.   Rather than recognize that business relationships do evolve, the employee is left feeling both rejected, betrayed, and outcast.

Business relationships are temporary and transactional.  Calling them anything else sets up the relationship to fail.   Boundaries matter between work and family for physical and mental health.  One is a family, another is a team with a common purpose, no less or more than that.

Even if the family concept started well-intentioned, it is unsustainable.  Start being honest with your team.  Anything less than transparency in any relationship is unacceptable. Calling your employees “family” is the ultimate hypocrisy and betrayal.

Jan Cavelle
Jan Cavelle

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