Is Your Office Team Like a Family? Should It Be?

I was just reading an article titled “5 Ways Leaders Must Build a Family Environment to Achieve Excellence.”

The article cites a McKinsey study which learned that family-controlled companies outperform their competitors and extracts some lessons for creating great teams, including:

  1. Give Teams a Sense of Ownership
  2. Everyone Must Protect One Another
  3. Instill Values to Enable a Trusted Culture
  4. Encourage People to Speak Up
  5. Develop a Succession Plan

My sense is that 2, 3 and 4 are the trickiest for a few reasons:

  • In larger organizations, people form cliques based on a variety of factors – seniority, projects, function – and it’s hard to get people to see beyond their own clan to get to that place of “having each other’s backs.” Cliques thwart teams.
  • All too often, a team (sometimes only the senior leadership team) will go off on a retreat and come up with values. It’s fun to come up with aspirational words; it’s a lot harder to live those principles back to the office and infuse them into the organization.
  • Just as fiercely as families will defend each other, they could also be prone to fighting. In situations where teams are close-knit, there’s an emotional investment. While camaraderie can lead to people being more honest, that forthright feedback can also lead to hurt feelings and bruised egos.

What’s been your experience?

Have you worked on a team where it felt like family?

Did that environment lead to positive or negative outcomes?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Personally, I don’t want a “work family.” I have friends at work along with colleagues and fully enjoy working with others. But there has to be a line between your work and personal life for one to stay sane and productive. I’ve been accused of being stand-offish but I believe it makes a healthier work environment to maintain a professional distance.

David Dejewski

I think I understand the point – take the best of “family” and apply it to the work environment. I don’t disagree. I also like the five points you listed above.

I believe that Yin never travels without Yang, and I’ve never met the ideal family. Family has deep roots that are often attached to deep emotions. Is it possible to have a family environment and maintain an acceptable level of professionalism? Maybe. I could see a few challenges.

Have I been on “family” teams? Yes. And I’ve had both positive and negative experiences with them.

Julie Chase

We have somewhat of a family at work. Most in the same grade/series hang out and have formed friendships. Those on the top tier of management are pretty much off limits. As much as we like and respect them, they are often left out of the after hours cook outs bbq etc. It is good to keep it that way “in their opinion” as there are those who are party poopers and put in their 8 and out the door. It’s a job. Management doesn’t want to be accused of playing “favorites”, so while they hear about “get to-gethers”, they are not asked and they understand. There is a guy at work, like Bill, who keeps his personal and professional life separate. Some consider him a stick in the mud….I think he is a great “go to” guy when you need help with something “business” related. He just chooses to keep his distance on a personal level. I can respect that. As a woman working with mostly men, there is much less “drama” all around.

Victoria A. Runkle

While I appreciate the 5 elements to a good team, I strongly concur with Bill’s comments about not wanting to replicate a family at work. I have a great family. I don’t need a second one. I need a professional relationship with folks with clear expectations — yes, that is like a family. However, I am a member of my family for life. I am not with everyone I work with — nor want to be. The five elements — good practice in most setting. I don’t need a family setting to implement them.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Bill – Have you observed in any way that being more “stand-offish” (I have never experienced you as such 🙂 has hindered your ability to get things done (i.e. relationship might not be as strong, lower trust, etc.)?

Dave – For some reason, your comment reminded me of how Dostoevsky opens Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Victoria – That’s probably the point. You don’t necessarily want to replicate “family” so much as you want to have the sense that you’re in it together in an atmosphere of unconditional commitment to working with each other to support your organizational values.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Andy – Not really. Except for one or two people in my various jobs, people respected my right to privacy. As far as trust at work goes, people know I keep my word and my confidences so no issues there.

Peter Sperry

Lets see —

The “adults” (execs) fight in front of the “children” (staff) / The “siblings” (departments) throw temper tantrums over trivia / Everyone trys to keep up with the Joneses” (other agencies) / Homework assignments (required reports) are pushed off until the school (parent department) calls the parents / The bickering and squabbling can drive a person insane / And yet it all seems to come together when needed to produce a quality product.

Seems like a typical family to me.

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Peter – Congratulations. That has to be one of my Top 5 favorite comments on GovLoop in my four years affiliated with the site!

Jerry Rhoads

My thoughts are to be a professional family –all the good, none of the bad. We spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our family. So we should have a sense of family minus the drama!

My $.02

Eric Koch

Funny response Peter. I am more along the lines of Bill and Victoria’s comments. I do see where some of these points can have merit, but there are just so many factors at play that are not taken into consideration. One of them is absolutely with the size of the company, as you mentioned Andrew. However, even with small organizations cliques still occur. An example on this would be with my mother as she works for a small subcontractor for the DOD and it is like drama central over there. Every night I hear about some new drama unfolding — the plot just continues to thicken! I almost feel as if I am watching a TNT series of drama — isn’t their slogan, “We know drama”?

Cheryl Flinn

I concur wholeheartedly with Victoria. It’s a bonus when one has friendly relationships and shared interests and team comraderie, I draw the line at “being a family.” I mean, if your workmates are family, who are your relatives, then? It is just messy and brings a lot of baggage: Must I turn a blind eye to bad behavior “because we’re family”? Do “mother and father” always know best? It’s a strange dynamic to want to bring into the workplace.

Jo Youngblood

I’m wary of organizations that function like families. In my experience it’s allowed employees to develop bad habits that were overlooked because “hey we’re all one big family.” I don’t mean bad habits like leaving a dirty dish in the kitchen sink in the breakroom. I mean bad habits that violate HR rules and state laws. Think about the quirks in your personal extended family that you tolerate and then ask yourself if that should fly at work too? And is it healthy for your immediate family for you to develop such relationships at work?

Karen "Kari" Uhlman

I find it interesting that family-controlled businesses outperform their competitors.

In families, I see the parents setting boundaries and coaching the children through life’s experiences.

Deming talked about the role of the supervisor in an organization. He explained that a supervisor has two responsibilities: to assist those who need special help and to improve the system.

I don’t see the supervisor as one who sets boundaries so much, but rather a self-directed work team setting their own boundaries.

I don’t need another mother at work. I have one. I have seen supervisors and managers try to take on the motherly nuturing role. It rather gives me the creeps. I prefer a supervisor or manager who empowers staff.