Joshua A. Luna for hbr.org, | October 27, 2021

The Toxic Effects of Branding Your Workplace a “Family”

There are other ways to promote a healthy, supportive culture.

Read at hbr.org

If you’ve seen an open job posting or have been through a new job orientation over the last decade, you’ve probably seen the word “family” thrown around when describing a company’s culture.

“We’re a family.” 

“Welcome to the [company name] family.” 

“We’re a family that breathes and lives the mission of the company.”

It’s no surprise since we spend most of our waking hours (approximately one-third of our life) at work. Our relationships with our coworkers serve many functions — they can help us grow in our career and provide us emotional support and friendship. So it only makes sense that the relationships you build at work can mirror those you find within a family context.

But how these play out depend on the culture of your organization.

As a leadership development trainer, this is one of the biggest organizational mistakes I see among managers and high-performing teams. While some aspects of a “family” culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organization’s culture as family-like can be more harmful than psychologically satisfying.

How a Family Culture Can Harm Employees

Employers want productive, high-performing employees, which are often the results of individuals who work well with one another and produce results. Adding a “family” culture and sense of belonging might not sound malicious at first, but when used to foster relationships with the expectations of top-level performance, employees will rarely be set up for success.

Personal and professional lines begin to blur.

We must understand that “family” means different things to different people. Not everyone wants to connect with their coworkers on a deeper level, let alone create a dependency to the organization. In a professional context, an employee will want to reserve private details of their personal lives outside of work. But when your workplace is a “family,” these types of conversations can be fair game, as the goal of the organization is to encourage socialization for the benefit of the whole. According to research, when an organization uses the family metaphor in businesses, it creates a positive, motivating and morale-boosting culture, where colleagues are not seen as colleagues any more, but as brothers or sisters. This leads employees to emotionally attach themselves to the organization. While it can reduce conflicts and disagreements within the organization, a fear of causing a strain in the relationship with their superiors (who are now seen as fathers or mothers) could leave employees feeling like they must share any information that is being asked of them.

This can be even more challenging in a virtual or hybrid environment, particularly at a company where much of the workforce had never worked remotely before. Research shows when managers cannot “see” their direct reports, they sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are actually working. This might prompt managers to seek out employees’ start and stop times as well as information about what they are doing all day long (read: micromanagement) when on company time. Marry this with cultures that prioritize output of work over outcomes, and employers will feel entitled to knowledge that is only relevant to the employee. 

An exaggerated sense of loyalty becomes harmful.

When a family member is in need or requires significant commitment on your end, you rarely have to think twice. At least, that’s the perception among intra-family relationships. Placed into a work setting, loyalty can get misconstrued as expectations form to go above and beyond to do anything to get the job done. According to Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones’ book, The Character of a Corporation, in family cultures, employees are willing to step in to assist others when the need arises, or even volunteer to “help before they’re asked” in the most selfless manner.

But here is the flip side. Numerous examples and research show that overly loyal people are more likely to participate in unethical acts to keep their jobs and are also more likely to be exploited by their employer. These could manifest as being asked to work unreasonable hours or on projects or assignments unrelated to your role, or keeping things under wraps because it is in the company’s (read: family) best interest. We’re all in this together, so you have to play your part, right?

When employees work under this mentality, it’s only a matter of time until performance and productivity drop due to burnout, leading to conversations with 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.

A power dynamic is created where employees get taken advantage of.

If you’re promoting a family culture, does that make the employer the parents and the employees the children? Not everyone has a good relationship with their parents or siblings and emotions from family dynamics can easily bleed into professional relationships, if allowed.

These dynamics can also leave employees feeling unempowered (the parents usually decide, and the children follow orders) to stand up for themselves and take on work that falls outside of their comfort zone. This allows personalities and pre-determined dynamics to take precedent over what is expected to do their job well.

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 allusion that the bond will last indefinitely.

You’ll also risk masking illicit behavior among close-knit coworkers, because how often do you tattle on your family? Studies show that employees who operate within a “familial culture” often fail to report any wrongdoing when they feel closer ties to the perpetrator. Feelings of fear the damage might cause to the perpetrator keep fellow employees quiet and complicit.

What Companies Need to Do Instead

When fostering a healthy, supportive culture, avoid promoting a “family” mentality and focus on putting in place actions and structures that bring value to and support your employees. For example, think of your organization as a sports team or a tribe instead. In doing so, you retain a culture of empathy, collectiveness, belonging, and shared values and goals, while outlining a performance-driven culture that respects the transactional nature of this relationship. To promote a more balanced culture:

Define high performance and focus on purpose. When building teams and onboarding new employees, make sure to disassociate the concepts of “family” from conversations around high performance and purpose. Let your employees know what is expected of them to succeed at work and that there is a clear line between work and their personal lives. Define these work expectations during an employees’ onboarding period and follow-up through check-ins and 1:1’s. During 1:1’s, managers should use this time to gauge levels of employee performance and address any work-life balance concerns. If that line begins to blur, make it straightforward for employees to reach out to have conversations about what can be improved.

Managers should also shift from focusing on a family-culture centered “We’re all in this together” to “We share the same purpose.” Research suggests defining purpose can lead to a heightened sense of loyalty and stronger employee engagement, especially when the company’s overlaps with the employee’s purpose. Clearly define and communicate the purpose: What are you trying to achieve? What is your employee’s role in helping you get there? A shared purpose can get everyone rowing in the same direction.

Set clear boundaries. The grayer the policy, the more opportunities for misunderstanding. Make sure employees understand what’s expected when it comes to work hours and what lies beyond standard work hours. Support your employee’s endeavors and let them know that vacation time/PTO is not only encouraged but expected. Share team calendars where everyone lists out there PTO and ideas for new vacations. Employees will also feel more comfortable advocating for themselves when they see this promoted during their tenure at your company. For managers, make sure to start the trend by taking your own time away from work to recharge and spend time on hobbies or interests. Employees will see you starting this trend and will feel comfortable to do so for themselves.

If employees start to feel overwhelmed and can no longer manage performance expectations, make it clear what options are available to find support and get back on track. Can they take time off? Can team members pitch in to make their workload more manageable? Can priorities be reshuffled?

Mutually accept the temporary and professional nature of this relationship. We have to be realistic about the relationships employees build with their employers and remember that it is transactional. Most won’t stay at the same company for their entire career and that’s completely okay. As organizations grow, so do the roles and every organization can be outgrown by its employees if there aren’t enough opportunities for the employee to grow or if the organization doesn’t need the employees’ skills or experiences anymore. Be candid about setting this expectation as early as the onboarding. If an employee has decided to leave, don’t take offense about them not wanting to work at your company any longer. Acknowledge their contribution and help them exit respectfully. If you don’t need their skill’s anymore, ask how you can help them find a more suitable position within the company or elsewhere.

Family ties can be binding and anything that’s binding isn’t ideal for growth. Promote these practices and you’ll never have to use the word “family” about your workplace ever again.