Your business is not your family

I meet many family business owners who proudly tell me “We’re a family here.” It makes me cringe when I hear it. It is true that the relationships we build at the workplace can help you grow in your career and provide you emotional support and friendship. However thinking that the team working in your family business are part of a family is one of the biggest organisational mistakes I see among business owners. While some aspects of a “family” culture, like respect, empathy, caring, a sense of belonging can add value, ultimately trying to sell your organisation’s culture as family-like can be more harmful than satisfying.

It needs to be always clear that as employers, family business owners and managers want to employ and have team members that are productive, high-performing and who work well with one another and produce results. Adding to that some sort of “family” culture can result in fostering relationships that put pressure and end up hampering performance.

First of all, “family” means different things to different people. Not everyone wants to connect with their colleagues on a deeper level. In a professional context, employees should have all the right to reserve private details of their personal lives outside of work. But when your workplace is built on a “family,” culture this distinction will likely become very blurred.

According to research, when an organisation 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 organisation. While it can reduce conflicts and disagreements within the organisation, 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.

Pushing a “family” culture at the workplace is likely to result in an exaggerated importance on loyalty which likely leads to harmful things. In a work setting, loyalty can get misconstrued as expectations to go above and beyond and do anything to get the job done. 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 their 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 managers 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.

Another problem arises when it comes down to some employee resigning or having to fire an employee. 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. Family businesses need to understand that 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, when it is extremely likely that it will never be the case.

Another aspect of this “family” culture is a sense of Omerta’. 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.

So in my opinion although it is healthy to promote a supportive culture, it is avdisable to avoid promoting a “family” mentality and instead focus on putting in place actions and structures that bring value to and support your employees. I prefer thinking of any business as a sports team. 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.

This would mean that you would be promoting a more balanced culture, which is based on a clear definition of high performance and focused on purpose. I find it very unhealthy to associate the concepts of “family” 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. Managers should also shift from focusing on a family-culture centered “We’re all in this together” to “We share the same purpose.”

Finally, businesses and especially family businesses need to keep in mind that relationships with any of their employees need to be professional and likely temporary in nature and this benefits everyone. As businesses 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. So 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 are meant to be binding and anything that’s binding isn’t ideal for growth. So it is important to avoid promoting the “family” culture at work, as it pits unnecessary pressure and expectations which will only hamper performance.

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