Using the word "family" to describe your work culture may not create the positive feeling you're looking for.

When I was in the "Best Places to Work" business, it was common to hear both CEOs and employees describe their culture at work as being "like a family." These were top organizations that had been recognized for achieving high levels of employee engagement and loyalty, so it was easy to assume that making work feel like a family is a good strategy.

Not everyone agrees.

Invoking the word "family" to describe the work culture is likely to garner some strong reactions. Some, according to this column on Inc.com, argue that you should treat employees like a family. Others feel pretty strongly that you shouldn't consider co-workers family at all, as noted by Quartz.

Usually, the conversation quickly turns to a debate over how to define the relationship we have with our co-workers. Popular terms range from "team" to "tribe" to "neighbor." While it can be interesting to work out the semantics, it doesn't do much to clarify what kind of environment you should be fostering for employees.

"Family" is a loaded word. Ideally, it would imply mutual respect and working together toward a common goal. For some, however, it carries memories of dysfunction and even violence. That certainly isn't the tone you're hoping to set for your business. I've found that how people react to using the word "family" to describe work is often colored by their personal and professional experiences.

So, should work be like a family? To decide, we must dig a little deeper.

When Work Should Be Like a Family

When employees or leaders use the word "family," they are generally describing the positive nature of the relationship they have with their colleagues. They're invoking that ideal family dynamic that is healthy and supportive. Think about what most people seek out in a healthy relationship:

  1. Commitment. Family bonds are not conditional. Whether things are good or bad, you're in it together. Even when you aren't getting along, you'll show up to help or defend the other because that's what family does.
  2. Caring. When you are hurting or in need, you turn to family. They will offer support and encouragement when it feels like everything else is going against you.
  3. Communication. In the best families, people talk about everything. They call each other just to catch up. They send updates and information that might be interesting. Families ask questions and listen to one another.
  4. Acceptance. Ideally, being with family is where you can most be yourself. Your family has seen your good, bad and ugly sides, but still loves you just as you are.

As I said, this is an ideal version of the family unit. Your experience with your own family may not be anything like this. But you probably wish it was, and that's the point. It's not about family, per se; it's about the relationship we foster with and between employees.

There's no downside to intentionally creating a work culture that prioritizes commitment, care, communication and acceptance. You don't have to call it a family. Call it whatever you want.

When Work Should not Be Like a Family

Not every aspect of the family unit is a good model for the workplace. There are a number of ways that treating your workplace like a family could be counterproductive. Here are a couple examples:

  1. Membership is optional, not a birthright. "You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family" is a phrase that sums up a common frustration. Work is different. People choose their employers and employers choose their people. This choice doesn't have to be permanent for either party. Sometimes, the employer decides that they need a different type of person on the team. Other times, the employee decides they want to find a better opportunity. This kind of flexibility to make choices doesn't exist in a family.
  2. Work requires purpose. For an organization to exist, it must serve some sort of purpose. Most organizations are in business to make money and create value. Nonprofits strive to address a specific need within the community. If this purpose isn't understood or adequately realized, the organization no longer needs to exist. Family doesn't require a purpose. That's not to say that some families don't have a purpose, but it's not a necessity.

The Verdict

Using the word "family" to describe your organization is risky given the baggage we all carry about what family means to us. Work isn't a family and probably shouldn't be defined as such.

That said, it's short-sighted to dismiss those who say that they want work to feel like a family. What they are really saying is that they want a healthy, positive relationship with work. That's exactly the type of supportive environment you should foster if you want to create a "best place to work" for your employees.

So, while work isn't a family, trying to make it feel like one that we'd all like to belong to would be a worthy goal.

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