“But they are like family to me!”
You hear this phrase or something like it when people speak about their work relationships. Hell, I’ve been guilty of saying it in one form or another. It is sorta sad to think about it, but we often spend more time in the company of our colleagues than we do with our core nuclear family.
But is it really like that, are we really family?
Would we want to be family?
So we’re all one big happy family! Now what?
Like the saying goes you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. The implied premise is that your family has to claim you. Thus, if we use the family paradigm, it hurts all the more when you have to, for professional reasons, reject an employee.
I think the best attitude to take with your employees is the same you might take if they were guest in your home. Be their host. (I don’t mean in a parasite/host relationship sorta way, I know some of you were thinking it.)
If we aren’t family, what are we?
It is kinda ironic that we often treat people in our families worse than strangers. We know them better, so we know how to hurt them more deeply. Afterward, you have to forgive and forget – We’re family!
That type of dynamic cannot work in a professional setting. The words “family” and “familiar” share the Latin roots from the word “familiaris” (domestic), but too familiar in the workplace might land you in civil court for any number of reasons.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, leadership is a social relationship, a construct. Family is a blood relationship that we are genetically hard-wired to defend or justify. In the eyes of the law families have more obligations to each other. These obligations just don’t work in leadership situations.
Leadership is a confluence of two social roles.
- The follower surrenders to some authority.
- The leader fills the vacuum and assumes authority over a follower.
What is the alternative?
I have seen professional relationships that I would describe as fatherly or matriarchal or weirdly incestuous that, by definition, creates a barrier for others. The in-group/out-group feeling can lead to jealously or genuinely prejudiced on the part of the would-be mentor.
I think the best approach is to use another social construct as a simple guideline to boost a healthy organizational culture. I suggest that you treat employees under the same obligations you would as a really good host of a great house party.
Everyone has their role to play, their social obligations to meet and no one has any claim to special family ties that can be the sources of unending drama.
My Host Rules for Leadership:
Just a quick follow-on remark. Asking someone to leave does not have to be huge confrontation. You can frame the departure as a mutually decided, professional departure. If there is no opportunity for promotion or growth, then an honest discussion should include the possibility of leaving. I have personally called and found jobs for employees who felt stagnant in their work. Because the relationship with them was not broken, I could honestly vouch for their integrity and value. The good will from the gesture often returned in another form.
Being a leader is hard because in it not always easy to set the boundaries of your emotional commitment. All good leaders allow an emotional component to their work because it is necessary to build empathy and trust with your people. But, when you make it family, the hooks can get too deep and the entanglement too complicated. When you end up having to fire someone, then the fantasy of “a big, happy family” becomes thin. The perceived advantage of family unity seems pretty hollow. The feelings change from family to dysfunctional family.
I know a lot of leaders who treat their real family like crap. It may be acceptable for a father to yell at his family, but I would not accept that behavior from my boss; I don’t think anyone should. For them to say “You’re like family to me” is really not a compliment.
I think you can really see this dynamic at its worse in family owned businesses. They really are family and it is impossible to decouple business from family. Family businesses often last only a generation.
The key concept I want to convey is that as a host you want to create a warm, welcome environment where people want to be. The parallel leadership concept is to create a healthy organizational culture where people genuinely enjoy coming to work.
As a host, you have the emotional distance and social obligation to do what is best for everyone.
So, be a good host. All everyone wants is a fair treatment and feeling of being welcome either at a party or on the job.
About Ken Wrede