Should Your Workplace Be “Like a Family”? How to Foster Healthy Working Relationships

To say “we’re a family” in describing a workplace is an understandable impulse. After all, your team ideally does feel a sense of belonging and mutual respect in accomplishing goals — much like a supportive family would. However, family doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and it only takes one out-of-touch colleague’s use of the term to sour the idea of a work family for everyone else.

That said, fostering healthy workplace relationships takes more than word choice. Especially at the management level, you can’t just switch from calling employees a family to calling them a team and expect to eliminate all resentment. You must unpack the intention behind your words, then act in accordance with it.

Saying you’re a family isn’t really the problem; it’s saying you’re a family then acting the opposite way that creates tension. So, what are you really saying?

Do you mean your team should share values, commitments, and a collective mentality? Good

Are you just hoping to impart a sense of obligation with the words, “family” or “team”? Not good!

Unpacking your intention is the first step towards fostering actual, mutually healthy employee relationships — no matter what you call them. And that should be the overall priority.

Let’s explore the shared qualities of organizations and families as well as the qualities that can be considered distinct to each. In this article, we’ve compiled 4 areas in which a family dynamic (if not label) can improve a business or organization, and how to keep it that way.

Company Values

Families and organizations develop and hold each other to values in very different ways. More often than not, families shape each others’ values and beliefs — especially early in life. These values and beliefs evolve and change over time as individuals grow older, but the influence of family can still be strong. On the other hand, organizations work tirelessly to design, develop, communicate, and monitor values as a way to create cohesiveness among teams, departments, and individual contributors and to help drive an organization towards a shared vision of success.

  • Like a family, company values should be respected by everyone. This requires understanding — rather than repetition, alone — of what each core value is and how it is expressed. If the value is accountability, for example, take the time to think about and share what that word means to you — allowing others to do the same. Shared values reflect commitment, which is integral to maintaining healthy relationships in all areas of life.
  • As an organization, you also need to consider the unique, lived experiences of each employee, since, unlike a family, not everyone has spent their lives together! All parties should be interested in learning about how the company’s values are interpreted by each others’ lived experiences and what they look like in practice at work, in their roles.

Individual Roles

Contrarily, individual roles within a business have a greater variance; each role is rooted in the unique needs, services, and responsibilities of that position and that position only.

  • Like a family, every role within a company should contribute to the greater goal, function, and well-being of that company. When each team member clearly understands their contribution to a collaborative effort, they can do their own best work. This props up everyone else on the team, too, and allows for smooth project transitions, improved communication, and higher degrees of trust and accountability.
  • As an organization, roles need to be well-defined. While roles within personal relationships may be more fluid based on circumstance, organizational roles function best when they’re clearly structured and communicated. Otherwise, adding or changing duties can lead to task overload and employee frustration. For example, an administrative assistant might be able to (and even want to) draft company-wide HR emails, but making that part of their job responsibilities requires a different level of expectation-setting, communication, and accountability. Said another way: you’re not asking your sister for a favor, your company is paying an employee for their service, and that compensation should fairly reflect what that person is expected to do in their role.

Communication

As we’ve heard a thousand times before (and in nearly every context) communication is key. It’s how we set and keep boundaries, understand each other, and resolve conflicts. This is just as important in a workplace setting as a personal one and requires practice to stay effective.

  • Like a family, communication in the workplace should be grounded in trust. This requires employees at all levels to be vulnerable and transparent in expressing needs, ideas, and concerns. In addition to the basics like meetings, deadlines, HR details, and project management, a healthy office environment encourages speaking and hearing hard truths with both compassion and a desire to grow — as families do.
  • As an organization, communicating efficiently in the office depends on transparency, but employees should be incredibly mindful of whether communication crossed the lines of personal boundaries. (Oftentimes these are expectations that can be set and shared early on in team formation so boundaries are respected later on.) Remember to use relevant and thoughtful language and active listening rather than probing questions. For example, if a team member states that they’re having trouble meeting a deadline, ask how you can best support them rather than why that is. (For more resources on development, ONE EIGHTY offers a variety of services to help you get started or recalibrated.)

Team Dynamics

Team morale and engagement are central to maintaining a psychologically safe and respectful environment both at work and in the home. Members of successful teams know that they can trust each other — and themselves — to honor their commitments and accomplish shared goals.

  • Like a family, employees must put in the effort to cultivate and maintain professional relationships. That means constantly improving on the areas above and asking your team to do the same — as well as practicing active listening. In work as in life, the solution to a conflict or problem may not be obvious, but just looking for it demonstrates that you care and are willing to put in the work to be supportive.
  • As an organization, an individual’s place on the team is not unconditional. And while that may sound harsh, remember it goes both ways! Everyone has a duty to make sure they’re serving the team and that it, in turn, serves them. If a job no longer serves you or your professional development, it’s okay to admit that to yourself and your boss. Similarly, it’s okay to end working relationships if and when the work has been put in and nothing has changed. (Exception: cases of racism, sexual harassment, or other HR violations, which should be reported to HR and/or leadership immediately.)

Leaders beware: Making anyone feel like they owe a company more than they’re being compensated for is the worst application of the “family” label.

Within the best qualities of families and work teams, there’s plenty of overlap. However, these similarities should always be viewed in the lens of their biggest difference: choice. You choose an organization just as the organization chooses you for their team. Ideally, these are lasting, mutually beneficial choices, but they also come with limitations.

Unlike a family, your workplace isn’t everything, and your job doesn’t have to be forever. Like a family with healthy dynamics, though, it can — and should — be a source of support, development, and growth.

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